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The Social Investment Revolution

ZURICH – In 1972, during Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing, Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, was asked for his view of the impact of the 1789 French Revolution. “It is too soon to say,” he is said to have replied.

Zhou probably misunderstood the question (thinking it referred to the May 1968 French revolt). But his answer could just as easily be applied to the revolution that has recently shaken the world of philanthropy. The implications could be far-reaching – but it will take some time before they are fully understood.

Philanthropy’s Storming of the Bastille began in November, when a group of nearly 30 billionaires, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Alibaba’s Jack Ma, announced the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. The BEC promised a “new model” that would leverage public-private partnerships to mobilize investment “in truly transformative energy solutions for the future.”

The announcement was closely followed by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s commitment to give 99% of their Facebook shares (currently valued at some $45 billion) to improving the lives of newborns across the world. They, too, stressed the importance of “partnering with governments, non-profits, and companies.”