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12 people who are transforming philanthropy

Here are a dozen innovative individuals who are reaching beyond old norms of philanthropy to help people in new ways. This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy.

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BILL GATES: This year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will give out $3.3-billion in grants, which is close to what the World Health Organization budgets for its entire operation. Along with his wife, the Microsoft founder is driving the global-health agenda both through the power of his money and the clarity of his mandate: securing a healthy and prosperous future for everyone on the planet. Mr. Gates takes on the big issues Western governments shy away from, in places where there are no votes and no profits to be found. Because of his wealth, and the private-citizen freedom that goes with it, he can afford to take risks and court failure on a huge scale, because that’s where a Harvard genius like him believes success will be found: where no one else goes, where the immensity of the challenge is too great. His problem-solving intensity may not be for everyone, but fellow entrepreneurs admire his approach to giving and his determination. Dozens of America’s wealthiest people have signed on to his Giving Pledge.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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GEORGE SOROS: For George Soros, making money and creating a healthy democracy start with the same thing: an open mind. Critical thinking is the key to his fortune, and it is the core value of the better world he has been trying to create since he first got involved in political philanthropy by helping black students fight South African apartheid in 1979. As a hedge-fund activist, he has often stood alone in his pioneering support for political dissidents and opposition groups around the world – including the United States, where he energetically opposed George Bush in the 2004 election, believing that the White House Republicans had turned America into a global oppressor. Mr. Soros came of age in Nazi-occupied Hungary and he has remained sensitive to the totalitarian threat. His Open Society Institute has emerged as the leading philanthropic force in the campaign to democratize authoritarian regimes. He even deserves credit for the collapse of the Soviet bloc, or at least for the speedy transition toward democracy in Eastern Europe.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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DAVID CAMERON: Most countries that faced a deficit the size of Britain’s would necessarily opt for a smaller society. It says much about David Cameron’s well-bred blend of optimism and charm that he has promoted the Big Society, capital letters and all, to solve the problems that big government couldn’t handle. The Big Society is more than an economic disaster-response plan – it’s an activist new-Tory philosophy of political devolution and personal engagement that makes social welfare the pleasant duty of the community and not the sullen obligation of an impersonal state. That the public good should involve the general public may not be a new idea, but Mr. Cameron has reset the standards by which both good government and good citizens should be measured. He promises a robust culture of volunteerism that will pick up the slack as the welfare state shrinks, and counts on social networks both ancient and modern to help restore the kind of dependable co-operative movements that once formed the basis of the opposition Labour Party.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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JIM MANIS: Instant gratification can be a good thing, thanks to Jim Manis. As the pioneer of mobile fundraising, the wireless-industry veteran has made it possible for the texting generation to unleash its charitable impulse. Media images of disasters arouse feelings of sympathy that need an instant outlet for the emotion to be transformed into a donation. Mr. Manis recognized how phones can serve as the instruments of immediacy, particularly for a younger demographic that might go unreached by the traditional modes of fundraising. Over the past three years, as the CEO of the Mobile Giving Foundation, he has greatly simplified the relationship between wireless carriers and non-profit organizations so that consumers can give to the charity of choice through a quick texted response on their mobile phones. Young mobile users may not be the best candidates for regular and dependable donations, but Mr. Manis believes the phone’s immediacy can bring them much closer to the good works they will want to support.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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JEFF SKOLL: While it is easy to give away a lot of cash in Hollywood, it is much harder to do good. Jeff Skoll's dream to inspire social change through big-screen stories might have seemed like exactly the sort of quixotic quest a young ex-eBay billionaire would undertake. But the Montreal-born, Toronto-raised entrepreneur has proved surprisingly successful at it: He has backed films such as An Inconvenient Truth, Syriana, Fast Food Nation, The Kite Runner, Charlie Wilson's War and The Help. However, moviemaking is just one part of Mr. Skoll's social-change portfolio. His foundation funds idealistic entrepreneurs who are well-placed to solve seemingly intractable social problems. Through the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, he brings together 800 of the major players in global good works. And just to ramp up his ambitions a little more, Mr. Skoll created his Global Threats Fund in 2009, with the aim of saving humanity from its darker self.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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JUDITH RODIN: Judith Rodin took over the leadership of the Rockefeller Foundation in 2005 and found an institution of global benevolence that hadn’t done enough to justify its reputation since the 1960s, when it fostered the green revolution and helped to develop a vaccine against yellow fever. Since her tenure began, she has prodded the Rockefeller into a more meaningful role as it pursues its mission “to promote the well-being of humanity around the world.” She demands high-impact results from the foundation’s $100-million annual expenditure. She has narrowed its focus down to five issues: basic survival needs (water, food, housing), health care, climate change, solutions to accelerating urbanization and strengthening social and economic security. She has also developed a culture of local involvement: The Rockefeller funded Spike Lee’s post-Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, a key part of her campaign to shake up political complacency and push forward the reconstruction of New Orleans.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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MO IBRAHIM: Mo Ibrahim made his fortune building mobile-phone networks in Africa and that act in itself changed the continent for the better – the power to undo poverty and corruption starts with people who can communicate. But it’s what he has done since he sold his firm to a Kuwaiti company for $3.4-billion in 2005 that made the Sudanese-born Monte Carlo resident a hero among people who share his conviction that post-colonial Africa is a mess. As the sponsor of the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, he gives $5-million to elected leaders who promote democracy, resist corruption and leave office in a timely and peaceful manner; this month, the transformative Pedro Verona Pires of Cape Verde was announced as the latest winner. And as the creator of the Ibrahim Index of African governance, he ranks the best and worst of the continent’s leaders, shaming bad governments. He doesn’t mince words about Africa’s responsibility to move on from colonialist blame and start solving its own problems.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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SIR RONALD COHEN: There’s good money to be made from keeping ex-prisoners on the straight and narrow. That’s the pitch English venture capitalist Sir Ronald Cohen made to investors in a pioneering project that promises to revolutionize both the financing and the philosophy of social services. Sir Ronald, a leading contributor to the Labour Party under Tony Blair, has spent a large part of his working life trying to reconcile the unbalanced values of capitalistic money-making with his desire for a fair and cohesive society. Over the past decade, he has concentrated his financial expertise on the emerging field of social investment – funding the voluntary sector through innovative financial instruments instead of relying on government to spend beyond its means. In 2007, he led a group that came up with the social impact bond, which creates a money-making opportunity for those who want to bet that they can finance social programs more effectively and efficiently than governments do.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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TIM HWANG: Proof that philanthropy has a fun side, Tim Hwang’s Awesome Foundation clears away all of the solemnity and most of the paperwork that traditionally accompanies the handover of money. Mr. Hwang, a recent Harvard graduate, shared the frustrations of friends overwhelmed by the burden of funding applications and in 2009 devised a nimble alternative that makes the donor-recipient relationship more direct and immediate. The Awesome Foundation distributes $1,000 grants to projects that spark joy and delight, relying on the pooled funds of “microtrustees” in autonomous local chapters who each contribute $100 to a monthly pot. The definition of awesomeness is kept deliberately loose and free-form. The winning fellowships so far include a mobile compost-pickup service in Miami, a starry-night simulation in overlit London, a documentary about the Tour de Timor bike race in East Timor and a pop-up Indiana Jones experience (picture giant rolling boulders) in a Washington alleyway.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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BONO: There's your run-of-the-mill celebrity philanthropist, the pretty face for an earnest cause, and then there's Bono. Even those overstretched United Nations goodwill ambassadors such as Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan can't keep up with the stadium rocker's networking reach as he brings together global leaders, chief executives, religious figures and the massed force of U2's fan base to confront Africa-centred issues such as debt relief, HIV/AIDS, famine and fair trade. Presidents, prime ministers and even the occasional pope have basked in his star power, recognizing that the singer's passion not only commands attention but also channels admiration into action. Politicians who treat a meet-and-greet with Bono as simply a feel-good photo op are in for a shock: Through his One advocacy campaign, Bono makes sure his friends in high places follow through on their promises. It's his sincerity that is on the line, after all, and his goodwill that mobilizes the not-yet-cynical into believing that anything is possible.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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YAEL COHEN: Defiance is Yael Cohen's starting point: If she can't cure cancer, she can at least tell it off with the kind of punk-rock obscenity she thinks it deserves. Her Vancouver-based F*** Cancer campaign began with a customized T-shirt she gave to her survivor mother in 2009. The sense of outrage in the message proved liberating with a disease that too easily gets submerged in anodyne pink-ribbon sentimentality: Strangers offered encouragement and wondered where they could buy one just like it, leading the South-African-born Ms. Cohen to set up shop at letsfcancer.com. The hundreds of thousands of dollars she has raised selling T-shirts and other paraphernalia support educational programs directed at her own Generation Y demographic, whom she exhorts to help their parents and themselves with early-detection wisdom. Though her work has met with resistance in more genteel circles, it has earned her an invitation to Washington for a Next Generation Leaders Conference – the White House evidently had no problem with her message.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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AZIM PREMJI: India's literacy rate is much lower than China's, and its backward rural schools are largely to blame. Software tycoon Azim Premji decided to challenge an educational culture that overvalued the discipline of rote learning and accepted the inevitability of poor performance from impoverished students. A decade ago, the chairman of Wipro started a foundation dedicated to improving primary-school education, reasoning that the country's economic potential would never be realized as long as millions of its young people couldn't read. Last December, he pledged a further $2-billion to fund an educational institute that will train teachers and improve classroom techniques. Though many wealthier Indians disdain the government-run schools, and fear that Mr. Premji's good intentions will be frustrated by a system that doesn't share his strategy, the Stanford-educated engineer has the entrepreneur's faith that change is attainable. One of his first goals is to dispense with the textbook drills of old-school India and give students more freedom to think for themselves.

Illustration: Antony Hare

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