Nairobi — As the world truly becomes a global village through technology, media and transportation, more and more people have become aware of the issues facing humanity, even in the most remote corners of the globe.
They realise more than ever how imbalanced the world is, with incredible wealth in some areas and dire poverty in others. Meanwhile passionate individuals such as Mr Al Gore, the former US Vice-President, have helped to wake up a growing number of us to the worst catastrophe facing the planet: the growing threat of global warming.
At the same time promising trends in charitable giving are putting those of us who can make a difference in a better position to tackle some of the world's imbalances and threats.
This year, more than ever before, we've seen an increase in international philanthropy-what some have already dubbed "philanthrepreneurship." Contributors are using their business sense to apply new methods of giving and are donating amounts that sometimes number in the billions of dollars. These are the kinds of gifts that could have an enormous impact on seemingly unsolvable world problems.
The wealthy have, of course, been creating philanthropic foundations and contributing to charities for ages. Still, in the past year or so a number of different factors have come together to create a new model for 21st-century philanthropy.
First, there is a whole new breed of entrepreneurs who have made large fortunes incredibly quickly by using innovative technology to create new opportunities. While many of these entrepreneurs are young, they already possess a strong sense of social responsibility. Clearly they are using their creative minds on a new type of challenge: applying creative business principles to daunting social issues.
A few pioneers in this area stand out. Mr Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay and founder of the Skoll Foundation and Participant Productions, has dedicated a large portion of his wealth to everything from organisations developing low-cost drugs or farming methods to programs that help future business leaders learn how to become social activists.
Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and the Omidyar Network, has turned his assets and attention to bolstering a variety of non-profit and profit-making ventures involved in social change. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, use their company's new charitable arm, and Google.org, to support a number of environmental and social ventures to the tune of $1 billion.
Second, egos have been left at the door.
Mr Warren Buffett is an extraordinary businessman who wants his donation of more than $30 billion to be used in the most effective way possible. So, rather than focusing on building a legacy for himself, he has given it to another entrepreneur, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who with his wife, Melinda, has already built a successful foundation.
(Product) RED - a campaign organised by U2 lead singer Bono and Mr Bobby Shriver, the founder of DATA (Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa) - has brought together businesses as varied as American Express, Armani and Gap to raise awareness and money for the Global Fund, which fights Aids, tuberculosis and malaria throughout the world. This pooling of funds and willingness to collaborate will help ensure that issues are tackled in the most efficient way possible.
A new breed
Third, the social sector itself is shifting. In the past, the social and business sectors often confined themselves to a limited donor/charity relationship, but now they are realising the importance of partnerships in which both sides bring expertise to the party. A new breed of social-sector leaders is redefining charity through social entrepreneurial solutions that end the ongoing dependency on charitable dollars.
Mr John Bird, who started The Big Issue in Britain, is an early example of an someone who set up a "social business," giving homeless people a chance to earn an income through the sales of a magazine. Mr Mohammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, created microfinancing opportunities that are now being adopted in poor countries around the world. For his work with this concept, considered an inspiration by so many, Mr Yunus was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.
In Africa there are hundreds of inspiring stories of people tackling everything from health issues to educational disparities through innovative models that interweave business and social-sector principles.
Mr Taddy Blecher, who set up CIDA, South Africa's first free university, is one example. Through his sheer determination and savvy business brain, Mr Blecher created a university that is now giving thousands of financially disadvantaged young South Africans a chance to get a fully accredited business degree.
Simple ideas, led by people on the front lines, are making enormous differences.
Finally, it's simply smart business sense to do your bit to make a difference in the world. Increasingly aware and concerned, employees and the general public alike have raised the stakes, demanding that the organisations they support demonstrate that they care for the planet and its people.
Businesses are seeing social and environmental issues through a new lens, looking at them as profitable business opportunities rather than as a drain on resources. Every business has an opportunity to leverage its resources in its own way and to get engaged at this critical turning point.
At the Virgin Group, our staff wanted us to put our concern for the communities where the company does business and our interest in environmental issues at the heart of everything we do. They felt that Virgin had built an incredible entrepreneurial engine that could power new opportunities that will drive significant and, equally important, sustainable change.
If Virgin Atlantic can re-conceive how airlines treat passengers or if Virgin Mobile can succeed even while breaking away from an industry standard like long-term contracts, then surely we can devote the same innovative thinking and similar resources toward goals that hold greater social benefits, such as preventing disease and stemming global warming.
This conviction was the impetus for the announcement I made at the Clinton Global Initiative on September 21, committing to invest all future Virgin Group proceeds from our transportation interests into renewable-energy initiatives. In the next 10 years, those proceeds are estimated to amount to about $3 billion.
As our first significant demonstration of this focus, we launched Virgin Fuels, a new venture for a series of investments in international renewable-energy sources, with an early concentration on biofuels. The scope of Virgin Group's investment strategy will include research and development of new biofuels suitable for both ground transportation and aviation.
These types of "good investments" are critical in driving scalable, sustainable social and environmental change, because businesses are going to want to make these investments only if it makes sense to their shareholders.
Our staff members also felt that, beyond devising this investment strategy, building partnerships to better leverage our resources would help Virgin people from all over the world make a difference. So we set up an independent arm called Virgin Unite to focus on entrepreneurial approaches to social and environmental issues.
Virgin Unite is participating in the social-sector shift in a number of ways, including through the creation of social businesses. For instance, Virgin Unite and Anglo Coal, along with the US and South African governments, recently teamed up to start the Bhubezi Community Health Centre, a rural health clinic in South Africa. This "one-stop health-care centre," as we call it, will offer diagnosis and treatment to 70,000 people in a community where one out of every five people is HIV-positive and health-care options are very limited.
From the outset, the clinic was designed so that it would not be dependent on donations in the long term.