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The Giving Season: A Walk Through Philanthropy - ABN AMRO Mees Pierson

Tom Burroughes

2 December 2019

As part of our series on philanthropy and wealth management this month, we interviewed ABN AMRO Mees Pierson, the Netherlands-based private bank. We thought it was a valuable step to talk to a bank in a continental European state to get a different slant on philanthropy than is often obtained by an institution operating under an English common law regime with trusts, for example. For more information and to get in touch with the editors about these features, email and

The bank's philanthropy arm can be reached here:

Our overall aim is to give meaning to money and to help our clients spend their resources in a meaningful and effective way. Our professionalism is reflected by our thorough understanding of philanthropy. We believe that philanthropy is more than just matchmaking between a client and a charity. It is a profession, where it is crucial to first focus on the intended change and the right intervention strategies, before discussing the structure and the legal side of giving. We help clients to move from reactive benefaction (i.e. offering a financial contribution to everything that comes along) towards pro-active philanthropy, and to adopt a more strategic mindset when it comes to charity.

In the jurisdictions that you operate in, what sort of trends do you see in terms of what causes people want to support and why? What causes/objectives seem to be gaining ground, staying the same, or losing some momentum?
According to the bi-annual research ‘Giving in the Netherlands’ conducted by researchers at the University of Amsterdam, religion and religious institutions, foreign aid and healthcare are the top causes for the Dutch in general to donate to. Whilst Dutch citizens are generous, their trust in and donations to charitable organisations are in decline. We see this same development amongst our clients. Over the years, do-it-yourself philanthropy has gained momentum. 

More and more people are motivated to make a difference and start their own project or foundation to do so. Yet, there are still many clients who give to charities in the traditional sense: by giving time, money or resources to established charities. 

The geographical location that these philanthropists dedicate their actions to differs. We see a growing preference for local, tangible projects. On the other hand, people often do realise that their euro has a greater impact outside Europe. The latter ties in to the rise of effective altruism in philanthropy. Hereby, one aims to realise the greatest good with his or her donation. Attention to the ‘social business case’ and the desired and realised impact is increasingly important to donors.

Are you noticing differences in philanthropic goals/objectives depending on which countries people come from, their life experiences, whether they are self-made, inheritors, etc?
Life experiences inevitably influence the actions of philanthropists. A sick family member or a trip to a poorer nation may very well be the trigger for one to engage in philanthropy. Our colleague Lieke van ‘t Veer (specialist philanthropy) conducted research on the motives and behaviour of Dutch high net worth philanthropists for her graduate thesis and identified four types of philanthropists: dynasts, visionaries, investors and patrons. Dynasts give to do good but also to establish or continue a tradition of philanthropy in their families, whilst visionaries envision solutions to problems and establish their own projects/foundations to realise these. Investors want to comprehend the problem, the intervention and the organisation they donate to: these donors are looking for a solid ‘business’ case to guarantee the social return of their donation. 

For the patron, giving expresses an interest in and a desired involvement with a particular theme, let’s say classical ballet. These types enjoy being involved through informative events, back scene tours and social dinners. In our work we mostly meet dynasts and investors or a combination of these two profiles, which signifies the growing desire for impact amongst donors. Along with giving money away, we see that our clients are interested in more novel forms of doing good, such as impact investing. Impact investing is a type of investing in where social impact triumphs financial results. 

When you talk to clients, in your experience is it the client or advisor who brings up philanthropy first? Is this changing? If it is the client, what do they often say? If it is the advisor, what does the advisor say?
Approximately 90 per cent of our top clients give money, time or resources to charitable organisations. These clients usually request a meeting with us to discuss their philanthropy. It is often also the banker/relationship manager who introduces us when he/she notices an interest in a client. Philanthropy is a subject that clients, in general, like to talk about. It is personal, different from the standard bank meetings and allows us to connect with clients on an another level. 

In your view what are the main added-value offerings that you can give to a client in helping their philanthropy goals? How has your organisation developed these in recent years (types of expertise, reporting, due diligence checks on charities, access, connections with the beneficiaries of the philanthropy, engagement of children, others)? Have you recruited more people to handle this work, invested in resources, etc?
We offer clients inspiration through events that cover actual and relevant themes such as impact investing, the refugee crisis or more practical topics as setting up a family foundation. The core of our work is advising clients on philanthropy and helping them to realise their philanthropic ambitions. We do this through client meetings, workshops, tailor-made charity reports and intensive supervision when a client wants to set up a foundation for instance. All our colleagues have a background in the charitable sector and are equipped to perform the due diligence on charities and help clients to set up strategic foundations. We developed our own internal materials to do this and we developed training materials for clients.

To help our clients design their own impact strategy we developed a charitable giving plan which we use for our workshops. In 2017, we wrote a guide, including practical tips and tricks, on how to navigate the (Dutch) charity jungle. In 2018, we wrote a guide to help achieve a better understanding between our clients (donors) and charity organisations. We also educate our clients on the misperceptions surrounding charities, and previously developed a template which allows clients to create their own personal impact plan.

We have published articles and have also hosted keynotes (e.g. Stockholm philanthropy symposium 2017) on our pioneering role in setting up philanthropic advisory services for (U)HNWIs.

We strive to publish a scientific report every two years (in collaboration with the University of Maastricht) on the giving behaviour of 700 of our private banking clients. In 2017, we also did a comparative study of our clients in The Netherlands and France (Neuflize). Additionally, we researched the attitude towards impact investments among HNW individuals. (

To what extent is philanthropy now sitting inside a broader field of “environmental, social and governance (ESG)-focused activity, rather than as a standalone advisory line?
Clients are interested in doing good with their wealth. Many clients these days adopt a holistic approach in this: not only giving to charity, but also investing in a sustainable and impactful way. The bank has various specialised teams which help clients to align their values with their practices. 

How do you think firms should position the philanthropy offering? Should it be a core offering, or an add-on? Should firms charge separately for philanthropy advice and support, or include it in an overall fee?
Philanthropy should be a core offering. Approximately 88 per cent of the Dutch population gives to charitable causes, this number is expected to be higher among private bank clients. Hence, it is a topic which matters to us all and which matters to clients. We currently work according to a Pay What You Want model. Hereby the client always decides what he or she thinks our advice is worth. We are a real service to clients. And, our team donates 25 per cent of the annual revenue back to charitable organisations. 

In what ways can private banks, wealth managers and other advisors to HNW individuals use philanthropy expertise and support as a business differentiator?
Philanthropy matters to many HNWIs and we know from experience that HNWIs struggle with philanthropy. If a trusted bank, wealth manager of advisor can also help clients with their philanthropic questions, then the firm really has a USP that further unburdens clients. Besides, philanthropy promotes cross selling within a firm. In our meetings clients often engage in personal conversations and we get a good understanding of their interest and needs. This allows us to introduce other specialists as impact investing professionals or estate planners. 

We have seen that philanthropy sometimes does not shield a client from reputational problems and that giving money to “good causes” can sometimes backfire. How should philanthropy sit alongside the work of protecting clients’ reputations?
We do not recognise this. The way this question is phrased makes it look as though philanthropy should or is intended to shield people from reputational damage, which is not the case in our practices.

Some jurisdictions – such as France and Germany – tend to make certain causes more a concern of the state than private philanthropy. However, there is still philanthropic and private giving in parts of Europe and elsewhere. Which markets which might have been a bit overlooked deserve more attention?
The philanthropic domain is an excellent site to spark innovation, to draw attention to issues or to overlooked or neglected causes in society, to allow citizens to participate in and contribute to social solutions. It is hard to say which ‘markets’/causes deserve more attention. The research project conducts research on the most pressing global issues humanity is facing and is going to face in the coming decades. They list includes, amongst others, climate change, bio-industry, biosecurity, artificial intelligence and global health as causes which are both pressing (will have a big impact on humanity) and are still not funded enough. In the Dutch context, we see that research and education receive the least donations (Giving in the Netherlands). 

There’s quite a “toolbox” today for giving: Donor Advised Funds in the UK and US, private foundations, trusts of various kinds, etc. Depending on whether one is in a common law or civil law centre, certain structures work better than others. Do you see any trends in structures becoming more, less popular, and why?
Over the past 10 years, the number of charitable organisations has increased a lot in the Netherlands. There are now approximately 43,000 registered charitable entities. In our work we noticed more clients being interested in setting up a foundation. A foundation is a suitable vehicle if one wants to exercise more control over grant-making or for philanthropists to engage their beloved ones in philanthropy. If a foundation is not preferred or suitable, clients often choose to set up a donor-advised fund at an organisation. This fund allows them to influence the allocation of their donation, making their gift more concrete. With a donor-advised fund, donors can often also make tailor-made arrangements with charities.  

We have to talk about tax. Tax breaks can motivate some giving – where do you see tax changes posing a threat or creating opportunities in certain countries?
We do not see tax as being a reason/a motive for giving but for some people it may be an extra incentive.