My time as an Encore Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project has opened my eyes to the reality that aging is the one challenge we all will experience regardless of our socio-economic background.

The number of older Americans is set to double in the next twenty years yet support for aging programs has remained stuck at a tiny 1.6% of charitable giving for decades.  As John Feathers, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging wrote in 2014, “the world is no more ready to cope with aging-associated challenges than it is to seize the unique opportunities an aging society presents.” The small amount of age-related funding primarily targets disease and the most vulnerable. Yet aging well signifies aging throughout the life course, not just the frail, elderly stage.

This means funding creative approaches for people of all ages to stay and thrive in their communities – indeed aging in our own community (even if our homes are no longer suitable) is proven to improve lives, strengthen families, and save money.  At a national level, the World Health Organization’s “Age Friendly Cities Initiative,” AARP’s “Livable Communities Project,” and Dan Buettner’s “Blue Zones Projects” seek to improve local environments, public policy, and social networks.  You and I need to ensure such initiatives are implemented in our neighborhoods.  It also means harnessing the experience, knowledge and skills of older people. Older adults are eager for second careers in the non-profit sector; currently one in four Americans over age 55 volunteers.  You and I need to convince organizations to engage them to solve social problems so our lives beyond 50 will be a time of social contribution and impact, not isolation and marginalization.  And it means fighting against ageism. As anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite points out, discriminating against older adults is actually discriminating against our future selves.

So how do we apply an aging lens and invest in our futures when faced with donation requests?  We can start in our own back yard.  Mine happens to be the nation’s smallest state, Rhode Island. Its tiny size and population make it an ideal laboratory to pilot innovative approaches which then can be scaled or replicated elsewhere. Already, Rhode Island has the highest proportion of adults age 85+ in the country and 23 percent of its population is over 60.  Over the next 20 years, that figure will rise by 75 percent (and 100 percent for people age 74-84). Unfortunately, Rhode Island’s older adults rank lowest in health scores and have the highest rate of Medicaid long term services and support in New England.  The majority of Rhode Islanders have two or more chronic diseases (80% of all older American adults have at least one) and 50 percent of those over age 85 have some sort of physical limitation.

However, Rhode Island does have two important assets to tackle aging issues: eleven universities generating innovative solutions in the health sciences and a vibrant community of social entrepreneurs running sustainable “do good-do well” businesses that use market forces to solve social problems.  The Social Enterprise Greenhouse, which supports these enterprises with skills training, networking and capital access, recently announced an aging and longevity program to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in promoting healthy aging.  Some of its members have attracted national attention, such as Doctor’s Choice, a resource for making Medicare Plan coverage decisions, Watch Rx, an elderly medication reminder watch, and Portela Soni Medical, a new standard of urinary catheter. Some are non-profit, such as Hands in Harmony, which provides music therapy grounded in neuroscience, some are for-profit, such as Love Philo, which makes logic puzzles and interactive games for those with dementia and their families.  And some have a purely local focus, such as Savory Faire which provides home cooked, home delivered meals for seniors, or, the state’s first comprehensive resource website for seniors, caregivers and professionals.  But all started needing seed funding.

So whether you support a local charity preventing elder abuse (currently at a six-year high), or fund start-up social entrepreneur whose product you may one day use, or convince your favorite non-profit to recruit more retiree volunteers, you will be investing in your future quality of life.

Five Ways To Give With More Impact This Holiday Season
27 Nov 2018

Last year, individual donors gave $280 billion to 1.5 million non-profits. The vast majority of Americans claim to care about charitable effectiveness, yet only 15% spend even two hours a year investigating how to achieve meaningful impact. You may not have the resources of Bill and Melinda Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, but by taking just five minutes a week research your giving opportunities, you can make a bigger difference with your dollars.

Here are five ways to be a smarter donor:

  1. No time to do your own investigating? Then pick an online giving platform committed to research, transparency and measuring impact. Unfortunately, there is no one-stop shop with the capacity to evaluate 1.5 million nonprofits (in comparison, there are 150,000 analysts evaluating 15,000 publicly listed companies). Sites such as,, and indicate whether charities are legitimate and how much is spent on operations; but figures like revenue or overhead costs are no indication of impact.  Good platforms include or
  2. Want to focus on small organizations making a difference in your community? Then call the development director to discuss how you can invest in what most charities struggle to fund: core costs.   Does the organization need to update its computer software? Purchase a new vehicle? Send staff on a training course? Or could it benefit from a consultant’s advice?  Think of how much your gift could multiply organizational effectiveness.
  3. Do you find yourself making too many small gifts to a wide variety of charities?  Then take the time this holiday season to focus on one specific cause – researching evidence is a great family bonding activity.  Look for neglected issue areas where your money can make the most difference.  If health, poverty or education is your passion, then The Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s 2017 High Impact Giving Guide is a useful tool.  Also check out a new resource-packed website:
  4. How about a gift that keeps on giving? From online lending platforms like to loan funds for social entrepreneurs (who run mission driven businesses) in your community, ear-marking some of your philanthropic capital for an investment at a low or “patient” rate of return may be one of the most effective way of leveraging your giving.  Furthermore, many people enjoy developing a relationship with an entrepreneur and find business mentoring highly rewarding.
  5. Follow the 50/30/20 rule: Focus half your giving on one charity or a select few that are most meaningful to you; mark 30% for gifts to local nonprofits; and use the remaining 20% for “impulse” donations such as for disaster relief, tickets to a friend’s gala event, or your niece’s marathon.
Encouraging News in the Fight Against Poverty and Inequality
27 Nov 2018

Since 2008, the portion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $1.90 a day) has fallen steadily, from 17.8% to 10.8% of the global total – which means about 800 million people. Much of this success has occurred in China and India where economic expansion has lifted millions. However, high growth rates have not resolved issues of inequality. In response, the World Bank announced two goals in April 2013: reducing extreme poverty to just 3% of the world population by 2030 and improving economic inequality by raising the incomes of the poorest 40% within each country. But how?

A partial solution, currently adopted by over 50 countries, is to provide cash transfers. While such programs improve consumption, they are not sustainable long-term. Ultimately, moving out of extreme poverty into sustainable livelihoods means developing an entrepreneurial venture that can support a household. For a time, microcredit was considered a panacea, but its benefits typically do not reach the poorest of the poor, especially women and girls, refugees, the disabled, and the geographically or socially isolated (due to caste or indigenous status).

So, what does work?

Most development interventions have not addressed the needs of the ultra-poor because they tend to be hardest to serve. They are socially and geographically isolated, own few or no assets, have limited livelihood prospects, and often suffer from poor health. But in 2002, BRAC, the world’s largest non-governmental development organization, pioneered a new methodology in its home country of Bangladesh. Now known as The Graduation Approach, it is a mix of interventions, offered in the appropriate sequence over 18 to 36 months, that will allow the ultra-poor to “graduate” out of extreme poverty within a defined time period. Its key ingredients include:

– Market analysis to identify viable livelihoods (options might include livestock, agriculture, carpentry, or crafts, depending on the local context)

– Time-bound cash assistance to support the family as the livelihood activity is launched (so that literal day-to-day survival is taken care of for a guaranteed period, ranging from 12 to 24 months)

– Skills training

– Seed capital or employment opportunities to jump-start the economic activity

– Financial education and access to savings

– And crucially, personalized coaching to build confidence and reinforce skills while changing aspirations, expectations, healthcare practices, and even getting kids into schools

Between 2006 and 2014, ten organizations in eight countries tested the Graduation Approach under the leadership of CGAP (the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, a World Bank policy and research center), and the Ford Foundation. Rigorous impact assessments and randomized control trials found it to be cost-effective and producing long-lasting change – unemployment rates decrease noticeably, self-employment rates more than double, and most households reach a monthly income equal or greater than the national minimum wage upon graduation. Most important, over half the participants report improved emotional well-being which persists long after the program has ended. The significant up-front cost was more than made up for by the longer-term economic viability and reduction in subsidy for these households.

Policymakers overseeing cash transfer programs around the globe soon saw the opportunity to integrate the Graduation Approach to provide their citizens with a ladder out of extreme poverty. Today, over 33 countries have integrated the Graduation Approach into their social protection and poverty alleviation policies.

Since its inception, the Graduation Approach has fostered partnerships and collaboration by merging aspects from three very distinct areas of development work: social protection, livelihood development, and financial services (development interventions generally focus on one area with experts working independently of one another). For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is collaborating with the NGO “Trickle Up” to test the Graduation Approach in refugee settings.

Now there are over a hundred programs taking place in 50 countries based on the Graduation Approach. The next challenge is to introduce technology (notably a tablet-based application for the technical skills modules and a lot of the life skills) to standardize and reduce the cost of coaching.

The Graduation Approach is not “moving out of poverty.” It is moving out of extreme, destitute poverty into sustainable and holistic livelihoods in a way that really alters the social and economic dynamics for the participants. It is allowing communities to design their own goals and definitions of success. As stated by one international development expert, “that empowerment and sense of opportunity is probably the most astounding outcome for those of us who’ve been working on this approach.”

What Can Be Done About Modern Slavery and Trafficking?
27 Nov 2018

I often am asked about my 18th century ancestors who were prosperous merchants when slave trading fueled the Atlantic economy.  Though nothing can erase this dark chapter in our nation’s history, we can learn from the past to focus on the 40 million slaves in the world today – far more than in the 18th century.

The prevention and prosecution of modern slavery and trafficking is of relatively recent interest to private philanthropy; its metrics are still not fully defined.  The Global Slavery Index, a project of the Walk Free Foundation, recently agreed with the UN’s International Labor Organization on a total of 40.3 million victims (71% are women and girls), that includes forced marriages as well as forced and child labor (25% in domestic service), trafficking, and sexual exploitation (12% of the total).  But if one considers the “flow” figure – the number of humans who have experienced slavery at some point in their lives – numbers shoot up to 89 million.  Half the victims are in some form of debt bondage, including the 400,000 Nepalese working abroad who will never manage to repay their recruiters.  Half the victims are in the Asia-Pacific region: Cambodians in Thai brothels, Indonesians on Korean fishing boats, children in Indian brick kilns, unpaid cotton pickers in Uzbekistan or garment workers in Chinese factories in Myanmar.  But many labor under our noses on construction sites, in nail parlors, sweatshops, brothels and even in fine homes.

Trafficking rakes in annual profits of $150 billion.  War, climate change or simply the consequences of unchecked development are driving unprecedented numbers of humans into the hands of traffickers.  Thanks to the Internet, sex trafficking has become so sophisticated that for every Nepalese child rescued from a fake orphanage supplying brothels, another takes its place.  Laws exist everywhere but are not enforced; governments move at a glacial pace, often resenting negative publicity (India has the greatest number of victims but regularly shuts down anti-slavery NGOs).  Indeed, the 2,000 NGOs working in this issue area have rescued just 60,000 victims and prosecuted just 14,897 cases.  How can private philanthropy hope to make a difference?

Donors today realize increasingly that the world’s toughest social issues will be solved only by harnessing market forces.  The private sector can act quickly and take risks that governments avoid.  The modern slave trade is a prime example: by funding investigative journalism and strategic litigation, donors can influence the supply chains of the world’s largest companies.  Banks and shareholder activists can add their clout.  Both Transparentem, founded in 2015 by Ben Skinner (author of the landmark 2008 book “A Crime So Monstrous”) and the Thompson Reuter Foundation (whose “Stop Slavery Award” attracts Apple, Adidas, Marks & Spencer, Wallmart and Hewlett Packard) fund investigative journalists who legally uncover evidence of forced labor or exploitation in a corporate supply chain.  Companies are handed these reports and expected to announce remedial measures – or else their boards, investors and major media outlets are alerted.  Transforming the attitudes of big business is key to fighting modern slavery.

The Thompson Reuter Foundation (its “Trust Law” initiative supports the legal needs of 400 NGOs in 175 countries through 80 law firms working pro-bono) and the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center are two examples of organizations pioneering strategic litigation and quality legal aid for victims.   Other groups undertake innovative front-line initiatives around rehabilitation (victims are often just sent home where they are soon re-trafficked, or locked away in shelters while their trials drag on), prevention campaigns, Internet trafficking networks, and giving voices to victims.  But the most commendable efforts are those of groups like the Freedom Fund (a donor-advised fund) that unites 95 NGO partners and invests in such “non-sexy” but vital aspects of this massive challenge as measurement and evaluation.

It took a horrendous civil war to end slavery in the United States.  Today, American courts can prosecute a foreign agent if there is some connection to this country such as a corporate supply chain.  The world is waking up (seven events took place at the September 2017 UN General Assembly), interfaith initiatives are forming; now is the time for American donors to come forward.

Another Rhode Island First
27 Nov 2018

Last year, $41 billion were given to America’s universities.  Donors fund higher education for many reasons, but most are rooted in the notion that universities are agents of social change.  This practice started in Rhode Island, well before the Gilded Age philanthropists endowed universities and libraries.

Nicholas Brown II was born in 1769, son and namesake of the eldest of the famous “Four Brown Brothers.” His childhood and adolescence were marked by anxiety.  Before age 18, he had lost his mother and nine of ten siblings; his family’s maritime business was almost ruined by the blockade of Narragansett Bay during the Revolution. At ten, a very homesick Nicholas was sent to boarding school, then at 13 to a derelict College of Rhode Island (which his family had brought to Providence).  He graduated in 1786 just as merchants were swept out of power by a “Country Party” who introduced paper money, which led to terrible inflation.  Nicholas’s first job was to face farmers rioting at a family store in Grafton, Massachusetts.  The Browns were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with huge debts from ill-advised purchases in England and a major investment in insolvent war bonds.  Meanwhile, his two uncles, John and Moses, fought publicly about the slave trade.

Then in 1791, Nicholas Sr. died, leaving this mess to his 22-year old son and his daughter Hope.

Fortunately, Hope fell in love with father’s remarkable apprentice, Thomas Poynton Ives. Thus, Nicholas acquired an invaluable partner and brother-in-law. In a second stroke of luck, Alexander Hamilton’s federal assumption plan for state war debt meant the family’s war bonds were suddenly worth an enormous sum.

Brown & Ives had two choices: the China trade, pioneered by Uncle John, or textile manufacturing, pioneered by Uncle Moses.  They chose the China (tea) and Java (coffee) trades, as well as banking, turnpikes, canals and later railroads. But they were also inspired by Uncle Moses’s social conscience; Nicholas became Vice President of the Providence Abolition Society and supported many Freed Blacks and their causes. He gave to the College of Rhode Island (renamed Brown University following his $5,000 donation in 1804), to the Baptist and other churches, and to missionary and Bible societies- typical early 19th century charity when America’s new middle class believed social ills could be “redeemed” by Sunday schools, temperance and hard work.

But by the 1820s, an industrial economy and bustling cities had replaced the orderly, rural colonial economy. The population was on the move, streaming out West while immigrants poured across the Atlantic. Politics became bitterly partisan.  Andrew Jackson increased import duties, which boosted Rhode Island’s factories but proved devastating for maritime commerce.  Along with growing numbers of dispossessed factory workers and immigrants, social tensions increased.  The era was marked with constant unrest: in Providence, the 1826 Hardscrabble Riot and the 1831 Olney Lane riot were both racially motivated.  Worse, Nicholas’s two sons refused to follow dutifully in their father’s business footsteps.

So he turned to the one institution he could still influence: the college that bore his name. Brown was going through a difficult time.  Its president had lost all authority due to a religious controversy. Nicholas brought in Francis Wayland, whose iron rule lasted 28 years.  He poured money into new buildings, a library, and scientific equipment.  But he insisted on a classical curriculum rather than newly fashionable “practical courses,” because he believed liberal arts would produce educated men imbued with social responsibility.

Nicholas recognized it was unrealistic for Americans to give up private interests for public good.  Rather they needed a moral compass, a set of values to guide them through the era’s stormy seas.  And Brown University would provide that compass.

Such a vision was unprecedented.  Until then, no one had considered a university so emphatically as an agent of social change nor given so much money to a university in their lifetime, to train the leaders of tomorrow (not just colonial ministers and lawyers).  Today, college applicants are often asked “How will you change the world?” That question was first posed here in Rhode Island.

Sylvia Brown has just published “Grappling With Legacy – Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse.”

Skeletons in the Closet
27 Nov 2018

When I was 18, I experienced my first drive with a police escort going to my grandfather’s funeral.  “Rhode Island’s Foremost Citizen Is Dead” splashed the front page of the Providence Journal.  Lengthy obituaries listed all the famous buildings in the world he had saved, his preservation efforts in his home town, his exploits as one of the WWII “Monuments Men,” his endeavors to desegregate the US Navy as Assistant Secretary in the Truman Administration, and many personal anecdotes about his generosity.  My grandfather, who called himself a “professional philanthropist,” truly believed that art and culture could transform the human experience.

A decade later, I sat at Christie’s Auctioneers in New York, watching the sale of my father’s magnificent 18th century mahogany bookcase-on-desk.  The price rocketed to $12.1 million – the highest ever paid for a piece of furniture.  My father donated the entire amount to restore our family’s 1792 house in Providence – though he could easily have kept the proceeds, restored the house, paid the capital gains tax, and saved a nice chunk of the money for himself. The he presented the house and an endowment to Brown University.

Ten years later, I was again seated in a crowded hall with a large press presence.  Brown University had appointed the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution, and Ruth Simmons had created a “Standing Committee on Slavery and Justice” to examine the origins of the university.  Its first public event in Spring 2004 was entitled “Unearthing the Past: Brown University, the Brown Family, and the Rhode Island Slave Trade.”  One of the speakers came up to the microphone and announced: “there were no good Browns.”

That felt like a punch in the stomach.  All I had experienced of the Brown family was philanthropy and public service (my uncle J. Carter Brown was director of the National Gallery of Art and my father was a Naval officer for thirty years, then ran several non-profits).  Had I been fed a bunch of lies?  Was all this philanthropy atoning for the actions of generations 300 years earlier?

The Steering Committee’s concluding report in 2006 devoted half its pages to the Brown family. The media had a field day with my 18th century ancestors, including a five-day series on slavery in the Providence Journal, a 2005 New Yorker piece by Pulitzer-prize winner Frances Fitzgerald, and a successful book “Sons of Providence – The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade and the Revolution.” The Wikipedia entry for Rhode Island now read “In the late 18th century, several Rhode Island merchant families began actively engaging in the triangle slave trade. Notable among these was the Brown family.”  The Brown family had become the poster child for the evils of the slave trade.  On one radio show, a caller asked, “Don’t you think that the Browns owe the descendants of [slaves] something?” This perception continues today.

So what’s the real story?  My ancestors arrived in Rhode Island in 1638 and by the late 18th century had become successful merchants in an Atlantic economy fueled by the slave trade.  Four times in the course of that century, they invested in slaving voyages, ill-advised “get-rich-quick” schemes that all ended badly.  All but one (not my direct ancestor) gave up slave trading by 1765 and emancipated their slaves just before and after the Revolution.  In the 19th century, they worked hard to support Freed Blacks, abolition, and Reconstruction; then desegregation in the 20th century. BUT, and this is the catch, Rhode Island was the biggest slave-trading colony in America, controlling the lion’s share of the Triangular Trade. Almost 700 families undertook over 900 voyages.  And after slave trading was outlawed, illegal slaving by Rhode Islanders continued well into the 19th century.  So any successful merchant would have benefitted directly or indirectly from slavery.  Evil needed a face and that face was my family.

It’s a lot more comfortable to blame a few rich, white men for an evil in which almost every New Englander was complicit.  The College of Rhode Island was founded in 1762 by the Baptist Society of Philadelphia and implanted in Providence (rather than the more prosperous Newport) thanks to an intensive lobbying effort by my ancestors who gave the land and first college building (it was only renamed Brown University in 1804 in honor of a later ancestor).  Funds for the fledgling university were raised all up and down the Eastern seaboard – and thus every penny was derived directly or indirectly from the slave trade.  As noted in a The New York Times editorial of October 23rd, 2006: “Brown [University] did indeed benefit in its early years from money generated by the slave trade and by industries dependent on slavery. It did so in an era when slavery permeated the social and economic life of Rhode Island.” Our extensive family archive is housed on Brown’s campus or nearby, making it much easier to focus on one family in a sensationalist manner, despite President Simmon’s charge that the Steering Committee “might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the issues raised in the emerging debate over slavery and reparations.”

My initial reaction was to think, “we are being punished for our success.” I even envied people who could claim that their grandfather arrived penniless in America and knew nothing about their ancestors! But I undertook 12 long years of research and discovered a fascinating story over eleven generations that actually mirrors the history of how Americans give.  This initiative culminated in my book “Grappling With Legacy – Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse.”  I wanted to show how the Brown family’s view of “doing good” evolved over eleven generations alongside America’s attitudes towards giving through the centuries.  I also wanted to show that judging the past through 21st century eyes serves little purpose.

Nothing can erase the past, but we can learn from it to make thoughtful choices and to effect positive change in the present.  Every family is made up of stories it can be proud of, and stories it wishes had never happened.  We all have skeletons in our family closets – I just happen to know what mine are.  But where does the sense of guilt end? With ridiculous questions such as “Is it worse to be the grand-daughter of a Nazi officer, a tobacco manufacturer or a rapist”? Despite the Judeo-Christian belief in atonement, I do not consider it useful or even possible to expiate mistakes made by our forefathers.  Part of our legacy is what we have in our DNA, but the other, vital, part is what we choose to do with the values and examples that our families have instilled in us.

I do believe that we all have an obligation to ask ourselves hard questions about making the biggest possible difference in the world today. If we allow ourselves to be haunted by the past, we will never have the energy to work for a better future. Personally, I am very concerned about the 45 million slaves on this planet – far more than in the 18th century – and the political and economic instability that is pushing thousands of people weekly into the hands of traffickers.

Writing my book was therapeutic because it allowed me to correct misrepresentations and establish accurate facts – warts and all. But my legacy will be my actions and what I do to make the world a better place.