Helping the wealthy give away their millions

The new kind of philanthropy
The new kind of philanthropy   

Giving away your fortune might seem far easier than making it. But as philanthropy has grown and become increasingly sophisticated, an entire cottage industry has grown up around advising big donors on smarter approaches to giving.

The latest to join the business of philanthropic advice is the Milken Institute, the think tank best known for its own philanthropic research and conferences.

Last week, Milken launched its new Center for Strategic Philanthropy, which aims to help donors improve their giving and better coordinate their efforts with other nonprofits, research groups and philanthropists.

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The flagship of the new center is the Philanthropy Advisory Service.

Writing a check
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In an interview with CNBC, Melissa Stevens, the center's executive director, said the organization grew out the Milken Institute's less formal efforts over the years advising donors and coordinating various research efforts with medical research. Its new efforts will have a strong health-care component, but it will also help donors in other areas such as education and fighting poverty.

Donors today "are spending so much more time on their philanthropy because they want to do it well," she said. "We've been working with other philanthropists for several years and helping them understand a particular issue or area, say, for cancer. We can help them understand what are the roadblocks, what's holding us back from progress, and what are the opportunities where philanthropy can play a strategic role in helping us move faster towards a cure."

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Stevens acknowledged that there is an increasingly crowded field of other groups—like Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Pembroke and the Giving Pledge events—offering to advise the rich on better giving.

But she said that with giving from individuals reaching $250 billion a year in the U.S., there is plenty of room for growth and better practices.

"There continues to be an increasing trend toward wanting more external due diligence and assistance," she said. "And everyone brings a different expertise. In the medical-research space, we've been working in philanthropy and venture capital for quite some time now. Having those relationships are very key to what we can offer."

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In the end, Stevens said, the goal is to both encourage more giving and to improve its effectiveness.

"We're really trying to maximize the returns on philanthropy," she said. "And we're also seeing people wanting to maximize the social returns on their philanthropy portfolios."