The Most Elite Club in the World

A Rockefeller heir is creating a new model of giving that links some of the world's wealthiest families. But how much of the Global Philanthropists Circle is style, and how much is substance?

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It's one of the most exclusive clubs anywhere, which is why you've probably never heard of it. Members come from 68 of the wealthiest families in 22 countries. Many are connected to business dynasties around the world. The point of the club: to give away money so that it has the greatest long-term impact on pressing global issues. "Most philanthropists, even experienced ones, say that it's harder to give money away effectively than it is to make it," says Beth Cohen, director of the Global Philanthropists Circle (GPC).

The GPC is the brainchild of Peggy Dulany, 60, and her father, David Rockefeller, a grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller Sr. While it's common now for philanthropists to partner with one another, Dulany's six-year-old Circle was one of the first to try such collaborations. She recognized early on that philanthropy was becoming more global. Worldwide giving by the superrich reached $285 billion last year, according to a Merrill Lynch (MER )/Capgemini (CAP ) study. But with so many big new gifts, there's more waste as philanthropists struggle up a learning curve. Dulany saw a need for an organization that would allow givers around the world to meet, exchange ideas and strategies, and work together to take on increasingly complex issues.

Today the Circle's members, who pay $25,000 in annual dues, include such U.S. families as the Hewletts, the Gunds, and Ted and Vada Stanley, newcomers to this year's ranking of philanthropists. Overseas members include the Lopez family, one of the wealthiest Filipino business clans; Marcos de Moraes, a newly minted Internet millionaire from Brazil; and the Benjelloun banking family from Morocco.

The chance to socialize with one another is a big part of the GPC's appeal. As befits such an illustrious group, these encounters are often held at Rockefeller family estates. Recent gatherings have included an evening gala at a Park Avenue ballroom. Bill Gates Sr. was a panelist. Glenn Close, a friend of Dulany's who has traveled with her, stopped by. Richard Gere, a former GPC member, skipped this year's event. Every summer the GPC offers a weeklong retreat at Dulany's 9,000 acre Montana ranch. The agenda includes three days of camping solo in the wilderness. Participants can either fast or take along subsistence rations of fruits and nuts to munch on as they meditate on their philanthropic goals. Next spring 40 members will visit a Rockefeller-owned island off the coast of Maine. Shorter sessions are held at the Tudor-style Playhouse on the Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., where members share details of their projects in the morning, followed by tennis or bowling in the afternoon.

Those are just the regular group meetings. The real action happens on the trips overseas. On those outings, which members pay for themselves, the group might lunch with Prince Charles at his home in London, spend an afternoon with the Bhutanese royal family in the Himalayas, or join Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú for dinner in his private art museum. Next year they head to Kenya where one of their guides will be Africa's first woman Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai, who won the Peace Prize in 2004 for her work with the environment and human rights. And there are business luminaries as well. Ted Turner, Ratan Tata, chairman of the Indian conglomerate Tata Group, and Coca-Cola (KO ) Chairman E. Neville Isdell have all addressed the group.


The swanky settings and the chance to mix it up with celebrities raise the question of whether members are in it for the philanthropy or the fun. At their most noble, the GPC and networks like it provide a way for donors to share their successes and learn from one another's mistakes as they wrestle with issues that transcend borders. At their worst, they're a tax-deductible vanity. "These networks are a great idea if people are serious about it," says Trent Stamp, president of Charity Navigator, a nonprofit charity evaluator. "But if it's just an excuse to bring rich people together to network and pursue for-profit endeavors, then they're an expensive waste of time." The GPC believes that introductions to the world's rich and powerful can turbocharge a philanthropic project. Besides, Cohen says, if a donor is considering putting hundreds of millions into a cause, the fees are a small price to pay.

Dulany works hard to engineer the kind of spontaneous encounter that can get projects moving. At the group's annual meeting in 2003, she seated Maria Eugenia Garcés-Campagna, a philanthropist from a prominent Colombian ceramics family, next to Tokyo Sexwale—a mining multimillionaire, former Robben Island prisoner (with Nelson Mandela), and current South African presidential candidate. Garcés told Sexwale that her foundation wanted to bring restorative justice-- the model of justice pioneered for post-conflict areas—to Colombia. He suggested jump-starting the process with a meeting. "If you bring the president of Colombia," he offered, "I will bring Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu."

Two years later, the young foundation Garcés started with her siblings launched five centers in the slums of Cali, the country's third-largest city, and three in rural Colombia. The centers provide job training and services to displaced people, including urban youth and former members of street gangs. They grew out of a 2005 symposium that Garcés, Sexwale, and others arranged to bring together Nobel laureate Tutu, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, business leaders, and conflict veterans. In the wake of the meeting, the Colombian Congress changed Colombian law to let groups mediate conflicts among victims, offenders, and communities, paving the way for efforts like those of Garcés.

The GPC is also a full-service philanthropic consultancy. GPC staff members sat down with Garcés and her siblings when they joined in 2003 to help them lay out the issues that they wanted their foundation to tackle. Then they hammered out a strategy for doing so and, most important, a standard for measuring the impact. The Circle then helped organize the symposium and the conflict-resolution programs that came about as a result.

The GPC provided similar services for Uday Khemka, 42, and social investor Josh Mailman, 53. Khemka, a vice-chairman of India's Sun Group, a family-owned global investment outfit, is focusing his efforts on climate change. Dulany first met Khemka's parents in 2001 at the World Economic Forum in Davos where she is frequently a speaker on philanthropy. Mailman, whose family were industrialists early in the last century, is spearheading a program to fund and connect social entrepreneurs in five Middle Eastern countries.


The Circle also serves as a sort of stamp of approval for members seeking funding from outside sources. A GPC-crafted strategy helped South African philanthropist Hylton Appelbaum sign on a bank and an insurance company in his home country as corporate sponsors and secure grants and advice from the Flora Family Foundation, a spin-off of the Hewlett Foundation. His cause: education and health in sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2002, Appelbaum's foundation has produced TV programs seen in several African countries that are designed to teach English, math, and financial literacy. The health program, launched in 2003, consists of Webcasts for health-care workers to give them the most up-to-date tips on HIV/AIDS prevention. The program also streams "infotainment" into clinic waiting rooms that shows the importance of AIDS testing. Since it was created, the voluntary testing rate has risen by more than 25%.

Dulany started her first nonprofit in 1987 when she founded GPC's parent, the Synergos Institute. The consultancy focuses on poverty and inequality and connects nonprofits in developing countries with one another and with corporations and political leaders. Dulany's family had its own foundation, of course, the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped invent modern American philanthropy. But foundation trustees operate according to founders' values, not necessarily those of subsequent generations, says Sara Engelhardt, president of the New York-based Foundation Center, a philanthropy research organization. Synergos allowed Dulany to focus on partnerships long before the family foundation did and to find ways to involve for-profit groups, which many nonprofits tended to shun.

Using the Rockefeller name as a calling card was something Dulany tried to avoid early on. In her twenties, she switched to her middle name after a reporter offered cash to anyone who "could find the Rockefeller" at the squatter settlements in Brazil where she was a volunteer. But then she had a pivotal meeting with anti-apartheid activist and former African National Congress President Oliver Tambo in the 1980s. She wanted to support his cause and had been planning to demonstrate at the South African Embassy. Instead, he suggested that she use her connections to do good.


A week later, Dulany did just that. She was in Paris with her father, who invited her to breakfast with the CEO of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ ). But Dulany had plans to meet with Johnny Makatini, another leader in the anti-apartheid movement. So she suggested they all dine together. The conversation that ensued helped speed J&J's disinvestment in South Africa, she says. At that point, she realized her vast family network is "the unusual value-added that I have."

The GPC is a smaller program within Synergos focused on linking individuals rather than groups. Since it was launched in 2001, half a dozen gilt-edged networks have cropped up around the globe. Most of them adopt a similar strategy of connecting people rather than raising money for specific projects. Bill Clinton's network, the Clinton Global Initiative, is the best known and has taken the model to a new level. While the Circle operates under the radar, the CGI sends out a stream of press releases during its annual meeting. Dulany was able to secure access to this year's invite-only gathering for members of her network. The event attracted some 1,300 business people, politicians, and philanthropists—as well as music and movie stars and a swarm of media. A good number of its members troop up on stage after making big pledges, to shake hands and have a photo op with the former President. Any donor who doesn't come through on a pledge is not invited back the following year.

In contrast, the GPC annual meeting is a fund-raising-free zone where soliciting guests outright is verboten. As a result, Dulany's group tends not to produce the kinds of gifts that generate headlines. Instead it claims to provide one-on-one services that result in groundbreaking initiatives down the road. The GPC doesn't give specifics on most members' projects, making its success hard to gauge.

It's also difficult to assess the actual balance between substance and style at the GPC. Do its members become more effective philanthropists after chatting with the likes of Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer at the elegant Asia Society on Manhattan's Park Avenue? Certainly, they may be more inspired after visiting Nelson Mandela in South Africa and think more strategically after chatting with former Mexican President Vicente Fox or Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Charity Navigator gives the GPC's parent, Synergos, an overall rating of three out of four stars—administrative costs bar it from top marks. Its fans say that's an outdated measurement that fails to capture the real value of a network like the GPC. Sexwale, for example, says he could never duplicate the networking and access to experts if he were operating on his own. His fellow South African, Appelbaum, echoes the sentiment: "If I learn about someone else tackling the same problem in a brilliant way, I can fast-track what I'm doing by taking a leaf out of their book. I don't have to reinvent the wheel. Well, that's priceless."

By Aili McConnon

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