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The Kindness of Strangers

Resource type: News

The Irish Times |

Original Source

NEW PHILANTROPISTS: Times are tough, not least for fund-raisers, but the president of the Ireland Funds, Kingsley Aikins, reminds SUSAN MCKAY of the old mantra: Philanthropy is about the three Ts: ‘time, treasure and talent’. Everyone, he says, can afford to give at least one

‘OUR GIG IS philanthropy. People think it’s a poncey word. They think it’s just for fat cats,” says Kingsley Aikins. “But it isn’t. My favourite definition of it is the kindness of strangers.” As president and chief executive of the Worldwide Ireland Funds, Aikins leads an organisation that in the past 10 years alone has distributed more than $200 million worth of the kindness of strangers, primarily to voluntary groups, in this country, North and South, and to Irish people elsewhere.

On Monday, he will preside over the Ireland Fund’s annual Saint Patrick’s Day Gala Ball in Washington, where Dan Rooney will be honoured. The 77-year-old Irish American, the personal benefactor of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, founded the Ireland Funds, along with Tony O’Reilly, in 1976. Rooney is also celebrated in the US as the owner of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers football team, six-time champions of the Super Bowl.

“Dan is an iconic figure,” says Aikins. “He’s also tipped to be the new ambassador to Ireland.” Rooney and Aikins have both been given honorary CBE’s [Commander of the British Empire] for their work in the UK and the North.

Rooney backed Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency, speaking of the “great hope” it gave him. President Obama has been invited to the ball, but regardless of whether he’s able to attend, on St Patrick’s Day itself, the leading figures of Irish America will, as always, Aikins says, “all troop into the White House”. The president will receive his first pot of shamrock, delivered for the first time by Brian Cowen as Taoiseach.

There will be Paddy’s Day events all over the world, and Ireland Fund events in, among other places, San Francisco, Boston, London, Tokyo and Sydney. “No country in the world has a national day celebrated around the globe like Ireland,” Aikins says. “We have a huge global philanthropic network for this country.” Aikins talks about the Irish diaspora as “The Great Irish Empire”; some 70 million people, 44 million of them in the US. The Ireland Funds are active in 39 cities in 11 countries, and 40,000 people take part in their events each year.

But the glitz and glamour of the big day is surrounded for Aikins and his colleagues by a major slog. He will be two-thirds of the way through a hectic three-week programme of philanthropic and fundraising meetings across the US. “By the end of it I’ll have had 60 one-on-one meetings and I’ll have seen 2,000 people at events,” he says.

The Ireland Funds acts as a broker for donors. “The big change in recent years is what we call ‘donor intent’. Donors tell us the sort of project they’d like to support, they give us a chunk of money and we act as their back office – we facilitate their philanthropy through a product called Donor Advised Funds.

The potential and regular donors he’s meeting are “an interesting demographic,” he says. “These are the baby boomers. They’ve made a certain amount of wealth, they’ve raised their family, they are retiring, and they want to give something back.

“They want to do something with meaning. We sometimes say that life is about going from struggle to success and success to significance. Bill Gates talks about the eulogy speech – he asks people to consider their best mate standing over their grave, and to ask themselves: What do you want him to say? That he made a lot of money, or he gave a lot of money to others?”

Aikins does a lot of talking as he moves around the world, but doesn’t like to talk about himself. “This isn’t about me,” he keeps saying. Pressed, he gives minimal information and returns eagerly to his main theme. Asked where he’s from, he replies: “Dublin, Ireland, but a long time ago.” What was his family like? “Suburban.” He does let slip though that his mother was “big into volunteering”.

He went to Trinity in 1970, played a lot of rugby, and then went to France to play some more. Rugby is a passion in his life. “I played for Leinster in 1974, but only got one game,” he says. “Rugby has opened a lot of wonderful doors for me around the world. Like many Irish people I had an extraordinary sense of wanderlust. I worked in marketing for a while and then I joined Córas Tráchtála [now Enterprise Ireland] and was sent out in 1985 to run its office in Sydney.”

While based in Australia, he set up the Australia, New Zealand and Japan Ireland Funds. “In 1992, I was asked would I like to put my name in the hat for the US job, and I got it,” he says. Those were glory days for the Ireland Funds. “The Clintons were in the White House, we had the peace process and all of that – it was just wonderful,” says Aikins. He remembers when former UVF leader, Gusty Spence went to the US, and he laments the loss of another visitor from that time, the Progressive Unionist leader David Ervine, who died two years ago.

“The unionists came out assuming Irish America was green. I remember a St Patrick’s Day dinner that Mo Mowlam called the dinner of the potted plants. David Trimble was there, and Jeffrey Donaldson, in kilts. No one wanted to be seen. They were all hiding behind the foliage. Now they have such a good time we have to shoo them out. The relationship fundamentally changed. Unionists were embraced and engaged by Irish America and that made a huge difference. Irish America reached out and said, ‘we’ll give you a fair hearing.’ George Mitchell played a big part and Niall O’Dowd and others did good work. The US broke the logjam.”

In 1997, the Ireland Funds provided a grant to bring the leaders of the Northern political parties to South Africa. “We did it quietly,” says Aikins. “They wouldn’t fly together, they wouldn’t stay together and they wouldn’t listen to Nelson Mandela together. Just recently, Jeffrey Donaldson said to me that it was the best $25,000 the Ireland Funds ever spent.”

He says supporters of the US Ireland Fund felt vindicated and justified in their efforts “for over a generation” when they hosted a dinner for the then new first minister, Ian Paisley, and deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, when the pair visited New York and Washington in 2007.

“We are also funding something called Divided Cities in Transition, which includes Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem and Kirkuk. There’ll be a meeting in Boston later this year,” he says.

Northern politicians are also being funded to speak to Iraqi leaders about the Mitchell Principles of non-violence which underlay the NI peace process, known to the Ireland Funds as “Ireland’s gift to the world”.

The integrated education movement has had support from the Funds for years, despite the disapproval of church leaders who prefer the old, segregated system. “It still only reaches 6 per cent of kids,” says Aikins. “There’s a way to go.”

Not everyone in the diaspora got rich. Aikins seems particularly proud of a “new thing” the Ireland Funds is supporting in the UK: the Forgotten Irish campaign. This provides funds for the many charities working for the Irish in London – the generation that left this country on the boat for England in the decade after the second World War. “These people built the motorways and the London Underground. They rebuilt towns demolished in the war. They worked as nurses and domestics. And they sent three billion pounds home in remittances to Ireland,” he says.

“They helped take Ireland out of poverty and they laid the way for the boom. Now many of them need help. They should not be forgotten. We had Peter Sutherland launch the campaign. Terrific guy.”

Writer Polly Devlin supplied an eloquent essay on the campaign in the Ireland Funds’ glossy magazine, Connect. She describes the pain of emigration for a generation for whom there was no returning. “They have literally nowhere to go: and yet emotionally their roots are deep in Ireland,” she writes.

It is clear from the magazine that life is not too harsh for those whose wealth fuels this sort of work. There are acres of glossy photos of people out in their finery to enjoy galas, poolside cocktail receptions, balls, garden parties or golf tournaments. Aikins admits there’s an element of self-interest for many philanthropists. “Ask not what the diaspora can do for you, ask what you can do for the diaspora,” he says, wryly.

One group is called the Wine Geese Society. “These people have a passion for wine,” says Aikins. “We put on these wonderful trips for them. There’s a real esprit de corps. They want travel with learning, authentic learning.” There they are, quaffing and supping in beautiful places where grapes grow – but Aikins is in the photos, too, and after dinner you can be sure he’ll be making a little speech . . .

“We have a strategy,” he says. “A gift is just a moment in a long-term, hearts and minds relationship. There are 101 people in the Wine Geese and they’ve given us $30 million.”

For Aikins, 9/11 was “chilling” at a personal level: “I’d often taken that United Airlines plane,” he says. The Ireland Funds also lost 22 of their supporters, who were killed in the 2001 atrocity. “I thought it was the end for us,” he says. “I thought the US would turn inwards. But a week after it, Dan Rooney held a dinner and the proceeds went to helping out in the aftermath of the disaster. We clawed ourselves out and the “Hope and History” campaign ran for five years, raising more than $100 million for Ireland – the best ever.”

He admits he’s worried about the implications for philanthropy of the current economic disaster. “There has been a massive destruction of wealth. A lot of donors have been hammered,” he says. “I’ve been doing a lot of hugging. People who used to support 10 charities are telling us they are cutting it down to three. But what we are saying to people is, however rough it is for you, it is a lot rougher for the people you help.”

There are, he points out, 24,000 not-for-profit organisations in the Republic of Ireland. There are 7,500 charities. Some 63,000 people work in the sector and it accounts for 8 per cent of GDP. Irish non-governmental bodies (NGOs) get 60 per cent of their funds from the Government. “Is that going to increase or decrease?” he asks rhetorically. “It isn’t going to increase. The shrill winds of economic rationalisation are already being felt. I do a lot of training with NGO boards. There are going to have to be changes – there’s a lot of duplication of services, a lot of premises that could be shared, that sort of thing.”

There’s also the fact that several of the most significant funds are soon to dry up. “Ireland owes Chuck Feeney an enormous debt of gratitude,” Aikins says. “His Atlantic Philanthropies has put $1 billion into this country, but he has said he wants it spent in his lifetime. He says he wants his cheque to the undertaker to bounce. Guys like that don’t come on the next bus.”

It has already become difficult to persuade many US philanthropists that Ireland still needs their money, he says. Even more so now, when they see needs in downtown Detroit that appear even more pressing. In 2005, in an Irish Times interview with Conor O’Clery, Aikins criticised the wealthy of this country. There were at least 25,000 Irish, resident in Ireland, worth €5 million or more, he said, and, including property, there were at least 100,000 millionaires. But whereas in the US, one dollar in every 50 goes to NGOs, there was no tradition of philanthropy here. Many of the newly wealthy were young and obsessively focused simply on making money.

Meanness, however, isn’t the main issue. “Irish people are, for the most part, generous,” Aikins says. “But they tend to use the spray and pray approach to giving. We are trying to engineer a quantum leap in their thinking, to encourage them to be strategically philanthropic rather than spontaneously charitable.” Here, as in the US, there is still plenty of “quiet wealth” around, he says: “It is time for those who can, to step up to the plate.”

Aikins is back living in Dublin now, with his wife Claire and their three children. She’s Irish and they met in the US. “We love being back here, but I tell you, the Irish summers are driving us nuts,” he says.

About his work, he talks like a man well used to talking, and often slips into an after-dinner style, laced with little mantras, the sorts of thing that are liable to stick in the mind the morning after the ball: “We sometimes say philanthropy is about the three Ts, Time, Treasure and Talent,” he says. “Everyone can give at least one of these.”

But there’s a real passion there, too. This man believes in what he does. People need to look at philanthropy as an opportunity, he says. “They need to think, I could get some real inner joy from this.”


© 2009 The Irish Times

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