You want big returns on your investments,

so why not on your charitable giving, too?

By: Susan Kitchens

Do Unto Others

W HEN THEIR FATHER died 14 years ago, Eric Thurman and his three sisters were left with a $1.5 million foundation and a request: Give all of it away to charitable causes. But Thurman, a former radio reporter who later got rich running his own video production company, had little sense of which charities might be effective-and had no one to ask for advice.

By 2001 they had distributed the entire fortune, but Thurman still doesn’t know how well all the money was used. In the late Nineties he gave $50,000 to an international agency working in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, “but to this day I don’t know what was done with that money,” he says.

Thurman himself later pursued a career in philanthropy. As president of a large micro-lending charity, Opportunity International, he was nearly fleeced out of $400,000 in the infamous New Era scandal, in which a hot charity turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. Thurman got the money back, but others lost millions. His frustration led Thurman, now age 56, to join several wealthy backers in founding Geneva Global, a for-profit consulting firm that advises the rich and their foundat- ions on where to place their philanthropic bets. “We are to donors what investment advisers are to investors,” says Thurman. He set up the firm four years ago in Radnor, Pa., which also is home to the foundation of Sir John Templeton of Franklin Templeton Investments. The foundation is an ally of Geneva Global. “There are a lot of people doing heroic things, but you have to go digging for them,” he says.

And so Thurman and his firm-with a Monitor Group partner as his number two, a paid staff of about 40 and 440 contacts overseas-go searching for small, successful and unsung programs in the most turbulent backwaters around the world. They seek to match a single donor to a single, short-lived program, typically lining up grants of as little as $15,000 and upward of $150,000. Smaller is simply better, he says.

Another trick: He ties the money explicitly to a particular effort rather than fork it over to the organization itself; this ensures the dollars don’t get used for anything else.

Oddly, Geneva Global focuses entirely on donations that Americans send overseas, even though this is the tiniest of markets. Of some $240 billion a year in giving, only 200 of it goes beyond U.S. borders, says the American Association of Fund- raising Counsel. But that still allows potentially rich returns for Thurman’s company, he charges a hefty 10% fee on top of any donation amount. (Then again, his first dose of advice is free of charge; if a client wants to renew his giving annually to a particular outfit once the Geneva Global grant has finished, Thurman will not collect an additional fee.)

In four years Geneva Global has directed a total of $10 million in client contribut-ions to 500 projects, including hospices for AIDS patients in Kenya, clinics for the victims of mass rapes by rebel forces in Liberia, and rehabilitation clinics for prostitutes in Costa Rica. Thurman vows his firm will oversee another $10 million in giving this year, far higher than ever before, thanks in part to an alliance with HSBC Private Bank, which refers some clients to Geneva Global. “Giving to the ballet is just no longer enough,” says Mary K. Duke, head of family wealth advisory services at HSBC.

Geneva Global takes a distinctly capitalist approach to this effort in good works. It looks for “undervalued” charities in the poorest regions of the world, where a dollar goes an awfully long way, then sends in its own operative to check things out. One staff member inhabited the central Serbian city of Velika Plana, near a high-way that is a heavily traveled route for young women lured or forced into prostitution. In 1995 Jelena Zlatkova and local teachers set up Women in Action, a program that educates young women-most of these sex workers are teenagers about the sex trade and warns them to beware of seemingly lucrative job offers in other countries. Impressed, Geneva advised one client who donated $27,400 in Novem-ber. Since then Women in Action, little known outside Serbia, has expanded to hold classes for nearly a thousand women.

“This kind of project fits our profile: those that are successful and scalable, those that can be taken to another level,” says Thurman. One Geneva Global client, Timothy Geisse, likes putting small sums into grassroots projects in foreign lands. His $14 million family foundation owes to his late father, John F. Geisse, founder of a discounter that got bought by Wal-Mart in 1991. So far the younger Geisse has invested $130,000 in four Geneva-blessed projects, including a micro-lending program in Honduras and an effort to build water-treatment plants in India.

He once volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, the U.S.-based home-building charity and found it to be a worthy cause. But Geisse adds, “I realized that for the same amount of money, you can build many, many homes in South America.

Geneva Global has recommended charities working in these areas:

** Drug Rehab. Thailand. 200,000 Thai children are on methamphetamine (speed)

** Rape Victim Counseling. Liberia. Rebels raped thousands of females ages 8 to 65 before peacekeepers arrived in August 2003.

** Goat Farming, Burindi. Ethnic war left hundreds without subsistence income

** Job Skill training for Deaf, Nicaragua. 60% unemployment among deaf.

** HIVB/Aids Hospice Care-Giving. Kenya Outcast patioents in Kenya’s slums lack the basics: food, bed, water.

** Orphan Counseling, South Africa. Poor, AIDS-orphaned rural children often migrate to the cities looking for food, money, work.

** Weaving Workshop, Ikndia. Former prostitutes learn job skills to support families.

** Sex Trafficking Prevention, Serbia. 70% of girls lured into prostitution here are in high school.


F O R B E S Magazine

May 10, 2004, (pgs. 102-104)

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