My Turn: Business, Charity Learn From Each Other

Each day when I take my children to school in London, I remind myself how lucky we are. I grew up in a privileged environment, and I've been able to give my family the same. I frequently tell my sons about the unacceptable face of the world around us—children who are sick, orphaned by AIDS, starving, struck by poverty. It is our duty to give back. Five years ago I founded, along with several other leaders in the financial industry, the nonprofit Absolute Return for Kids (ARK). Its programs combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, transform abusive orphanages in Eastern Europe and deliver quality education to children in the U.K. So far, ARK has raised $106 million for such projects.

My work with ARK takes me to places far away from the world's financial capitals. My partner, Ian Wace of Marshall Wace Asset Management, and I recently returned from a trip to Bulgaria, which has highest rate of institutionalized children in Europe. As we walked through the door of an orphanage, the children ran to grab me, desperate for someone to care—all they know are distant, white-coated nurses. In Romania, I have met children who are so deprived of attention that they've lost the ability to relate to others. They sit rocking numbly on their chairs, their clothes soiled. They are often tied to their beds day and night, their legs wasted from never being allowed to walk.

The mission of ARK is to stop abuses like this. To do this, we've built a powerful business model to deliver our philanthropic ambitions. Unlike many charities, which have silent boards, our trustees and donors play a highly active role in shaping ARK's programs. For example, major fund managers like Paul Marshall, cofounder of $12.5 billion Marshall Wace, and Stanley Fink, deputy chairman of the $57 billion Man Group, have designed and directed our school initiatives.

It's all part of a new movement toward venture philanthropy in the U.K. A younger generation of financiers and entrepreneurs are eager to be as hands-on with their giving as they are with their businesses. While private charity here has often lagged behind that in the United States, that's beginning to change. At ARK's sixth annual fund-raising gala last week, donors gave nearly $50 million in one night. It's money that will be used quickly. We are not holding back cash in an endowment—people are dying today.

Why do people give to ARK? The title Absolute Return for Kids is no play on words—it is a commitment. We run the charity and all its programs as we would our businesses—our modus operandi is measurability and accountability. While many NGOs spend a significant amount of their budgets on operating costs, our administrative costs are covered by trustees and patrons, so 100 percent of donations fund programs in the field. We develop programs where results can be definitively measured—for example, we keep weekly records of the viral loads of all HIV/AIDS patients. I, along with other trustees, visit many of the children and families who benefit from ARK's work.

The trips are not one-sided: philanthropic work has informed the companies that my partners and I run. Too often in business, we just focus on the risk-reward numbers. ARK reminds us that people are at the heart of every success.

I am proud of our work so far. In three years, ARK has become the largest provider of AIDS treatment in South Africa. At last week's dinner, Bill Clinton launched a landmark partnership between ARK and the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative. Together we will take our HIV programs into Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world. In Eastern Europe, 1,800 children now benefit from our residential care. And in Britain, we've launched the first ARK Academy, designed to offer quality public education to underprivileged children, and plan to open 11 more by 2012.

While movement of markets can often be measured in minutes or even seconds, my work at ARK has taught me patience. When you are trying to turn around a state-run orphanage, you need to think in terms of months and years. It puts me in mind of the words of a great president, John F. Kennedy, as he set out his agenda for the United States: "All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

Being part of ARK over the years has transformed my life. My partners and I hope to continue to transform the lives of many, many more children in the years to come.

Join the Discussion