Learning to Give

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, EPI International & Educational Policy Institute

I was going to write on the MESA project findings in Canada this week, a project led by EPI over the past five years in partnership with Queens University. However, I’ll put that off for another week due to an article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail.

It seems billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are in China on their international tour to recruit the richest people in the world to join the “Giving Club” (my coin, not theirs).

Last year, Gates et Buffett embarked on this tour to convince billionaires to pledge most of their wealth to philanthropic agencies. As Gates has acknowledged, they are part of a unique group of people who have been fortunate to have fortune, and it is their responsibility to give back to not only their community, but society in general.

While philanthropy is global, the heart of philanthropy resides in the United States. No other country in the world has embraced the concept of giving more than the US fiscal elite. This isn’t that other countries don’t do it; they most certainly do, and any suggestion otherwise would be incorrect, if not rude.

But global philanthropy really got its start with the steel, oil, and transportation empires, from the Carnegies, Mellons, and Rockefellers to the Fords and Vanderbilts. Today, many of us are far more familiar with The Carnegie Corporation and the Mellon and Kellogg Foundations than the organizations from which they were established. New money, mostly from Tech business, has continued the proliferation of philanthropy in the United States. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, The Packard Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation are only a few examples of how the pledge of philanthropy has not died in a greedier world.

Thus, there is something truly pleasing about what Gates and Buffett are doing. Contrary to popular believe, neither is the “richest person in the world.” Gates is a lowly 37th on the richest list (58 billion), and Buffett 41 (52 billion), according to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Just like the Rockefellers and even Kennedys of generations ago, these billionaires understand that they owe society a great deal for their fortune in life. Both the Rockefellers and Kennedys believed that they should not only give money, but also their time, to society. Members of both families held elected office (and continue to do so) as part of their commitment to giving back.

Now Gates and Buffett are trying to convince other members of their exclusive club that they should pledge most of their money to those who are less fortunate. Not just “some.” Most is the term they use. Gates has stated that he has no desire to hand off his vast fortune to his children. He will leave them with an “adequate” stash, but not too much to separate them from understanding the necessity of hard work. He plans to give 95 percent of his wealth away, and has already shown that he means business. Currently, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is leading the world in health and education research and support. They are leading by example.

The two-some is currently in China to persuade, ever so gently, the richest Chinese to give their fortunes philanthropically. A private dinner is being held this week, and although the guest list is private, it is anticipated that actor Jet Li (not a billionaire, but very resourceful and connected) will be in attendance, among other luminaries. As reported in the Globe and Mail, there are an estimated 875,000 millionaires in China. Yes, that is not a typo: 875,000. Just as there are over 200 cities in China with over a million people, the wealth, much of which has been created within the last decade, is simply astonishing. If Gates et Buffett can leverage this wealth to philanthropy, it could quite literally change the world. The fortunes of Americans in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries have had large impacts on health and welfare around the world. But imagine if the wealth in China, and India, and even Russia are harnessed to do the same?

From an education standpoint, this is incredibly important. The third world nations pose an increasingly difficult burden for the rest of the world. The sheer poorness of a great portion of our 7 billion-population stresses our financial and environmental balance. Education is and continues to be the leveler in any nation.

Surely you and I can’t approach the impact that Gates and friends can have, but we have choices, too, and our efforts can be part of the global solution. Still, it is nice to open up a newspaper on a rainy Ottawa morning and read nothing less than sunshine.

Thank you, Bill and Warren, for pledging not only money to the world, but also pledging decency, empathy, and compassion.

One thought on “Learning to Give

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