Family business

True empathy means treating everyone as equals

In conversation with Sara Ojjeh

True empathy means treating everyone as equals

Sara Ojjeh, Co-Founder of Ojjeh Family Fund and Co-Founder and Director of Ethos Philanthropies Consulting, describes how her new generation of philanthropists are motivated by the importance of breaking down walls and working in equal partnerships

Over 15 years ago, when my family embarked on our philanthropic journey, we set a found­ing principle of democratic decision-making and deep-rooted equality. This remains as important to us today as it was then and it con­tinues to define how we deal with one another and the people we encounter in our work.

When my siblings and I were teenagers, our parents encouraged us to engage in philan­thropic giving with their support — but not their control. That was crucial, because they gave us the opportunity to fail and to learn from our mistakes. Through philanthropy we developed new means of communication and equal expression regardless of our individual experience of the family dynamic. This approach leads to innovation, growth and most importantly, in the long run, builds confidence in decision-making, which in turn improves the stewardship of wealth.

For the past two decades, there has been a steadily rising hum of philanthropic activity alongside estate planning and wealth trans­fers. Nearly three-quarters of charitable foundations worldwide have been established in the past 25 years, according to researchers at Harvard. Meanwhile, most of the record amount of wealth that will be transferred in the coming decades will go to women.

“Birth order, matriarchy and patriarchy can stifle innovation”

We have always made family decisions through a democratic process, reaching agreement by listening to each other equally. Birth order, matriarchy and patriarchy, by contrast, can stifle innovation. There is no room for “us” and “them” in philanthropic exchanges, which call for a collective approach that empowers all participants equally. Charity begins at home, but philanthropy starts with partnership, which means placing just as much importance on addressing the finances as the growth and evolution of the project itself.

In 2017, my sisters and I founded our company, Ethos Philanthropies Consulting, with the aim of engaging and encouraging families, individuals and companies to set out on the path of philanthropy as equals with their partners. We also see ourselves as equal to our clients, so delineations between con­sultants, clients and beneficiaries are all removed.

At its base, philanthropy exists because there is inequality. But it is our duty, as the next generation of change makers, to ensure that in our efforts to create sustainable impact, we lead by treating people as equals. We are equal voices as equal members of the human race. We are each just one small link in a long and hopeful chain for change, which can grow ever stronger if we encour­age an environment of equality from the dinner table to the boardroom.

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