CAPE TOWN - The Rothschilds have done what nobody else could, bankrolling the Suez Canal and helping establish entire countries and newly independent states.
They've financed many sectors for generations; built public libraries, orphanages and hospitals, homes for the elderly, education and social housing.
Besides their long-standing tradition of banking, the Rothschilds are also renowned philanthropists who use their wealth to make an impact the world over and transform their family legacy of charity into one of active philanthropy.
For the Edmond de Rothschild branch of the family, philanthropy is not about the charitable donations of old: it’s about bringing the entrepreneurial spirit to professionalise altruism and equipping partners to help themselves.
“Teaching a man to fish rather than giving him hand-outs has a far greater impact on the future generations,” commented Firoz Ladak, chief executive of the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations.
Ladak, who was in South Africa from the foundations’ head office in Switzerland for the annual get-together in Franschhoek with many of the biggest actors in philanthropy from emerging markets, leads the philanthropic summit in South Africa called Empowering Families for Innovative Philanthropy (Erfip).
“If you talk about the Global South, we believe you should go to the Global South.
"That's why we decided to host our initiative in South Africa.
"The Erfip network has about 100 families - every year we add more. We've hosted them in South Africa for the past four years and will continue to do so as we focus more of our work on the continent.
"Our group includes Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Morocco, Kenya and, of course, South Africa, but also representatives from Turkey, Brazil, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia.”
With streamlining, the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations are now focusing on four key areas: health (specialising in treatment and research of the eye and the brain through their high-end public teaching hospital in Paris); arts; entrepreneurship; and sharing expertise in philanthropy.
“We're very active in entrepreneurship,” Ladak explained. “Wherever you are, you have to find a way to empower youth and create companies.”
Of particular concern is the convergence of art, entrepreneurship and social empowerment.
“We find ways to explore how cultural institutions can make a difference.
"We developed a great project with the Guggenheim Museum in Haarlem and the Bronx in New York.
"In Africa, we're building a major platform for the arts that's going to be digital - new artists, especially from Francophone Africa - are producing incredible work. The arts landscape for Africa is much hyped right now, which creates a real opportunity.”
But it's not only about supporting art through funding: the Edmond de Rothschild foundations are building training programmes for emerging artists to become entrepreneurs and are planning workshops in Senegal, Abidjan and Cape Town for next year, where emerging artists can showcase their works to collectors.
“It's one of our ways of promoting Africa, both English and French. If a country doesn't promote its creative industries and art, it becomes soulless.”
Ladak said expertise in philanthropy was no longer merely focusing on charity.
“We bring our experience, train and share our knowledge. We cross-fertilise.
"Philanthropy should be sharing the successes and failures. We believe it should also be about promoting people doing amazing work on the ground and philanthropy does not only take place in the West.”
In Africa, the Rothschilds are already deeply rooted.
Besides private investments, their foundations have multiple programmes on the continent, which value entrepreneurship, health (surgery assistance and training), start-ups, community engagement in arts and city-work and higher education through MOCs (Massive Online Courses).
“Philanthropy is not about just writing cheques,” Ladak said. “We need to ask, how more impactful can it be? How can it work with better governance? We see ourselves as a lab of ideas, not just a wallet.”
He said a lot of public money was wasted because the focus was not enough on impact and the social bottom-line, as it would be in business. Government, business and philanthropy tended to operate in silos.
In emerging markets, foreign aid had often failed because money was simply transferred and not well disbursed.
The missing link, he said, had always been the lack of local agents, especially private philanthropists, not governments only.
“We pride ourselves on being an active, involved actor in our endeavours.
"We seek out projects and programmes that will maximise impact and we scale up initiatives that can then live on after our involvement is ended, as a more advanced, experienced and more powerful actor than before.
“We don't merely donate we activate, scale, plan for exit and send our programmes off in the end to be self-sustaining and grow.”