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September 5, 2014

A new report shows philanthropy and civil society coming to life in the great emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

In the United States, when we wonder how the philanthropic urge begins, and how it grows, we tend to seek answers mainly in the realms of philosophy and psychology: what motivates people to give, what values attract their support, and what satisfactions they derive from giving.

But thinking more broadly — especially about countries without a history of institutional or organized giving — the first line of inquiry might more properly be in the fields of economics, politics, and sociology. Before donors can decide what they like about giving and what goals to pursue, first the environment must encourage such questions. There needs to be enough wealth, enough freedom, enough sense of individual responsibility for the common weal, and enough of a civil society — otherwise known as “suitable grantees” — for a practice of philanthropy to emerge.

In a fascinating new study, published by the Foundation Center, the former head of the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, Joan Spero, has compiled a profile of emerging philanthropy in the four great power centers of the developing world: Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the so-called BRIC countries. The report presents a picture — actually, four pictures — of a philanthropic organism starting to grow and reproduce amid a fertile mix of rising wealth, economic and (sometimes) social liberalization, widening inequality, global networks and influence, and the first stirrings of a young but rising civil society. The interplay of economic, political, and social forces is different in each country, but the way these forces nurture and influence philanthropy reveals some fascinating similarities and patterns.

Among the report’s wealth of insights is that “Many foundations in the BRIC countries support education and training at various levels, thus promoting development and the reduction of income disparity as well as providing a bridge from charity to philanthropy. However, Indian and Brazilian foundations, which operate in democracies, are more likely to support social change than their Russian and Chinese counterparts, where government constrains the role of foundations and civil society.” (p. 15)

All of this provides a valuable window onto the changing social dynamics of these important countries. But even more, it sheds a rare and helpful light on philanthropy in utero, at a time and in places where all kinds of new life are beginning to stir.

Tony Proscio