FEATURES/Philanthropy Awards 2012 | Nov 27, 2012 | 12152 views

The Forbes 400 Summit of Leading Philanthropists

In June, Forbes convened the greatest-ever gathering of philanthropists: 161 billionaires or near-billionaires intent on solving the world’s most intractable problems. Six legends—Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, Steve Case, David Rubenstein and Leon Black, who have collectively committed more than $100 billion of personal wealth—sat down to debate the highs and lows of giving back
The Forbes 400 Summit of Leading Philanthropists
Image: Glen Davis
From left: Randall Lane, Warren Buffett, Steve Case, Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Leon Black and David Rubenstein

Forbes: For the first time the phrase ‘this panel needs no introduction’ is actually true. The big question: Do people who’ve been successful have a moral obligation to give? Is it an emotional decision—‘I can do good’—or an intellectual decision—‘I feel an obligation to do good’?
Melinda Gates:
It’s both, but I won’t say the emotional piece is because I have an obligation. Any time you give, it has to be from your heart. One of the amazing things about philanthropy, at least for us, is getting out into the world and talking to people. And you realise how similar people are in terms of what they want and their needs. So, for me, it’s a heart tug that I feel and that I carry every time I come back home, be it Seattle or New York.

But then it’s your intellectual head that you have to put on, which says, ‘Okay, so I met that one person’ or ‘that one family’ or ‘that group of villagers’, but how do I impact tens of millions? How do I use this money that’s at our disposal to have the very biggest impact?

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DAVID RUBENSTEIN: I agree. My theory is, number one, you should give money because when you give money, it’s selfish. Nobody who gives away money says, ‘I feel terrible about myself. I hate myself for giving away that money.’ You feel better about yourself, and when you feel better about yourself, you’re going to live longer, because your emotional health will be better.

Second, you might actually help somebody. You never know. All the times you try to do something, it doesn’t always work. But sometimes you might actually help people. And it’s a natural human instinct to help other people. And third, you might get to heaven more quickly. Now, I can’t prove that, but why would we take a chance?

You can only do three things with money. You can give it to your children, you can give it to your executor to give away or you can give it away while you’re alive. And my theory is, it’s much better to give it away while you’re alive. How much can you give to your children before you completely spoil and ruin them? Very few people who inherit gigantic sums have gone on to change the world for the better. Generally, the people who’ve changed the world for the better are people who made it on their own and ultimately didn’t want to just distribute wealth to somebody else. If you can give away as much money as you can while you’re alive, you’ll realise the benefits that I just mentioned, you’ll feel much better about yourself—and your children will feel much better about you.

And there are three different ways to give. One is to give money, write a cheque, which is important. Two is to give your time and really focus on the issue with passion. And three, essentially, is to give your reputation, leverage your network and try to plug people together. Initially, [my wife] Jean and I did some startups. We gave a fair amount of money away. Then we started investing in kind of what we thought of as not startups but speed-ups, organisations like Habitat for Humanity and Special Olympics, trying to expand their efforts.

For probably seven or eight years, we actually didn’t have a website, which is odd given all the money came from the internet. We thought it would be better just to kind of quietly do it. But then we realised we really weren’t using our most unique and precious assets, which are the ability to connect people together, build collaborations, shine a spotlight on issues. Which really led us to commit to the Giving Pledge. It wasn’t so much making a public commitment—it was more trying to leverage everybody’s expertise and create a network effect around the givers.

FORBES: Melinda, you talked about giving around something you’re per- sonally passionate about. You and Bill have given to a lot of things, such as vaccines, that are very abstract and far away from us. How do you get people excited about things like that?
The best thing is to en- courage people to get out and see the things. If you get somebody to go to Af- rica and see the beauty and yet also get a glimpse of what happens to children, that malaria’s this awful thing, not just in terms of deaths but the number of kids who are permanently damaged, never able to learn—they’ve had either malnutrition or malaria—it really draws you in. There’s no substitute for actually going and seeing it.

Same thing with schools. If you go to an inner-city school and see some of the pathologies that can develop in terms of how there’s security [checks] and people aren’t really going to the classes much, and then you go to a place a few blocks away that’s, say, a charter school run on a different basis, and you see that contrast, you really want all the kids to have what you see at the second place.

So I think you’ve got to have genuine experiences. That’s kind of the retail end. And then you, a little bit, step back and say, ‘Okay, what is it about that system? Why isn’t the combination of the market plus government able to solve that?’ Who’s really studying how you reward teachers? Who’s really studying why they’re good? What is the institu- tional framework that would change that? That involves working with ex- perts, doing a lot of thinking. But it’s got to be that kind of retail experience that creates this dedication.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 07 December, 2012
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