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The future of philanthropy means focusing on future generations

Philanthropy can have the biggest impact on the lives of a group whose suffering we don’t see: upcoming generations


About 10 years ago, I helped launch a social movement called effective altruism. In time it led me to what I am convinced is the future of philanthropy.

Let me explain. Effective altruism uses evidence and reason to determine how we can do the most good with our limited resources. When the movement began, the focus was on widening our moral circle of those we consider to be worthy of altruistic concern to include people living in extreme poverty. That widening moral circle is only the latest phase of a historical trend that began millennia ago.

I believe whatever money I have belongs to society. I am just a custodian for a short while. I didn’t bring it with me, nor can I take it with me.

Thinking — and Giving — Big,” March 2019

We started out caring only about the family unit or the tribe, but over time the circle widened to give equal moral weight to people of different genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, and nationalities. Now the circle has grown to embrace the abjectly impoverished. Although those of us who live in developed countries may not see their suffering with our own eyes, that does not permit us to ignore them. All humans are equally deserving of our moral concern, regardless of where they live. Consider this: The World Health Organization estimates that around 1.5 million people die every year from preventable diseases. Yet only about $2,300 can prevent a child under age five from dying from one of them — malaria — through the seasonal dispensation of antimalarial medicine.

More recently, however, I have come to realize that, even as we consider everyone alive today as being of equal worth, the circle has still not reached its maximum breadth. Yes, there are significant ways we can do an enormous amount of good to help the global poor. But lately I have been convinced that the future of philanthropy — and the place where we can have the biggest impact — demands that we focus on improving the lives of another group of people whose suffering we do not see. A group that is separated from us not by space, but by time: future generations.

You can be a part of the future of philanthropy now: Learn more about The Rotary Foundation and make a donation. Still want to do more? Find a Rotary club near you and ask about joining.

Illustrations by Greg Mably

The lack of representation of future generations is an example of market and democratic failure. People who do not yet exist cannot trade or bargain with us, and so they have no influence over the decisions of consumers or companies. And they are utterly politically disenfranchised: They cannot lobby governments, and they don’t have a vote. It’s left to philanthropy to fill the gap.

This is so important because there are so many people yet to come. Mammalian species can survive millions of years before extinction; anatomically modern Homo sapiens has been on the planet for about 200,000 years. If we equate the length of our potential existence as a species to the length of an individual’s life, humans are in early childhood and have nearly an entire lifetime ahead of them. And humans are by no means a typical mammalian species. It’s entirely possible that we might survive much longer: Scientists predict that the earth will be habitable for the next 500 million years; if we were able to take to the stars, the species’ opportunity to survive would be astronomically larger again. So we humans have a vast future ahead — that is, if nothing goes wrong.

Looking forward: The Future of Peace

Given all the changes of the past year— in Rotary, in the United States, and in the world — a conversation about the future of peace is more timely than ever. One thing is certain: Conflict and change, two constants, will occur. The question is, will we use those conflicts as a catalyst for constructive change? As they consider their answer to that question, Rotary and Rotarians must choose to have a significant and lasting impact on peace “across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves.”

To that end, we must work on some novel thinking and approaches to peacebuilding based on Rotary’s vision statement and action plan, always keeping in mind our principles and our areas of service and focus. One goal must be to build trust, transparency, and teamwork in our efforts. We should also establish a mindset where we make peacebuilding a daily habit that includes leading by example. And we must always keep our eyes on what I call the four P’s of Positive Peace: people, purpose, policy, and power.

Since the status quo is not working, I expect the need and drive for social justice and equity will inevitably lead to change, in ways that I hope are beneficial to all. As those changes occur, Rotary and Rotarians can make a difference in many ways, if they choose. We must ask ourselves: Will we have the courage and will to make the necessary commitment to Positive Peace?

I envision a time when, in people’s minds, the name of Rotary is equated with peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Peace is a human right, and I am optimistic about a future when the citizens of the world will live in safety, have the opportunity to prosper, and enjoy the quality of life we all deserve.

A member of the Rotary E-Club of World Peace, District 5330, Dennis Wong is a co-founder of the Rotary Action Group for Peace.

But there are, unfortunately, many ways things could go wrong. Nuclear power, geoengineering, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence all pose a challenge. How can we harness their benefits without risking potentially catastrophic events? With the emergence of more and more powerful technology, the risk of the extinction of the human race, or the irrecoverable collapse of civilization, has become a distinct reality. And risks that grave, even when extremely unlikely, must be taken extremely seriously.

Many philanthropists have been convinced, therefore, that when we try to do good, we should primarily be concerned with the very long-term consequences of our actions: over centuries, millennia, or perhaps even millions of years. The Open Philanthropy Project, funded by Cari Tuna and her husband, Dustin Moskovitz (a co-founder of Asana and Facebook), names “biosecurity and pandemic preparedness” and “potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence” among its areas of focus. Tesla’s Elon Musk and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman are supporting initiatives to ensure that AI is beneficial to humanity. Jeff Skoll, a Canadian internet entrepreneur, created the Skoll Global Threats Fund to tackle existential threats to humanity. As a symbol of this long-term concern, Jeff Bezos is funding a clock that will keep time for 10,000 years, chiming once every millennium. All these are examples, in different ways, of donors trying to benefit future generations.

Although this new wave of philanthropy is still in its infancy, I see that concern for future generations on the upswing. And if history is any indication, our circle of moral concern will only continue to expand.

An associate professor in philosophy and a research fellow at the Global Priorities Institute at the University of Oxford, William MacAskill is the author of Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work That Matters, and Make Smarter Choices About Giving Back. He is a co-founder and president of the Centre for Effective Altruism.

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about where Rotary may be headed — and what to expect when we get there

• This story originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.