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July 12, 2007

Wealth & Giving Forum: Personal Passion Leverages Funding

A lot of numbers made the rounds at the Wealth & Giving Forum's gathering for philanthropic families at the Greenbrier last weekend: the many millions who live on a dollar or day a less, the many thousands still displaced by Hurricane Katrina and a dysfunctional disaster response almost three years later, the billions that are truly needed to change the world.

But amidst the population figures and spreadsheet columns, another factor clearly stood out - personal passion and commitment to change.

From environmentalist and anti-pollution legal warrior Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to former WTO chief and globalist Mike Moore - and among a group of prominent philanthropists - the tales of almost gut-level decisions to go beyond check-writing and filling board seats brought an emotional factor to the conference that, I believe, left those who participated with a desire to do more with their fortunes.

And one key number bears that out. The gathering focused on issues surrounding water - from disease and poverty to environmental and security concerns - and participating families were asked during a polling session a number of questions about their attitudes toward philanthropy. Just half-way through the conference, they were asked whether they'd be more likely to give their resources to water-related issues; 80% said yes.

"For many of the families, I think it did open up new possibilities about what they can accomplish with their philanthropy and that's the most important thing," said Glen Macdonald, president of the Wealth & Giving Forum. "From my conversations, I know that some probably had the idea that with all the really big players in philanthropy that 'my contribution wouldn't make a difference.' And they discovered that's completely wrong."

The difference-maker, Macdonald said, was the degree of personal engagement on display, both in the public sessions and in the private, small-group meetings of family foundation members. Kennedy, for one, began the conference with a wall-shaker of a speech, which left the Greenbrier's crystal chandeliers shivering and the participants on their feet in applause (no matter their personal political affiliation).

Kennedy talked about the "miraculous resurrection of the Hudson," and described the expansion of the Waterkeeper movement from its humble, blue-collar beginnings among fisherman in the 1960s to a force of 160 riverkeeper patrol boats on everywhere major waterway in the U.S. and a program to sue polluters across North America.

He insisted that the movement isn't about saving wildlife for its own sake: "We're protectig the environment for our own's sake, for the commuties we create for our children." He said that in his 24 years as a full-time ecological activist he learned that the movement has to be non-partisan to succeed, that " there are no Republican or Democratic children." And he lamented that the "worst thing to happen to environmentalism is for it to become the province of one political party."

But Kennedy didn't stop to apologize for what came next: a full-bore siege on the environmental policies of the Bush Administration. He called it "the worst administration in history, with a radical agenda" in environmental terms, and accused President Bush of "appointing polluters to agencies protecting our environment." And he said that the system is broken, that corporations have tilted our American version of democracy in their favor.

"The big polluters and their indentured servants in the government are not just destroying the enviroment, they're permanently impoverishing these communities....There is nothing radical abut the idea of clean air and clean water."

Next target: the media. With Jeff Greenfield, who worked as a speech writer for his father, sitting stage right, Kennedy stated plainly (and to strong applause): "We have been let down by a negligent and indolent press."

On the gathering's final morning, we heard from Mike Moore, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and outspoken Director-General of the World Trade Organisation. He brought a global view of American philanthropy - and a progressive optimism - that perfectly balanced Kennedy's stark and dramatic portrait of current affairs.

“We are in the most sustained period of global growth in the history of the species,” said Moore. “I do admire that part of America where serious business people dig deep” into issues like water and poverty.

Moore said that although the problems on the world are legion, they are not insurmountable. He celebrated improvements over the past half century, including huge jumps in the infant mortality rate and human life expectancy. And he said that government should be involved at all levels in improving people's lives.

“The word globalization has been demonized – it’s a process not a policy and it has been going on forever,”  he said. "Governments mean more than ever – and it’s about good governments, effective governments.”

Like Kennedy, he took aim at subsidies for private business - “The United States has a $20 per week subsidy for every cow. And we thought only the Hindus kept cattle sacred!” - and said that in his view, efforts to preserve and improve ecological conditions were intimately tied to issues like poverty and disease. “The enemy of the environment is the poor. The poorest cities are the dirtiest....Efficiency is another word for conservation.”

Moore said that information technology has played a major role in spurring movements to change the world.

“The genius of it all is the transparency created by information. I read 1984 like everyone else. We all thought it would be Big Brother watching us. Wrong again! We’re watching big brother.”

Kennedy and Moore brought an involved, almost professional level of passion to the table, but other speakers like Jean Case and Ken Behring showed participating families how to "walk the talk" - describing how they and their families put personal fortunes to work for large causes.

Jean and Steve Case (the founder of America Online) created the Case Foundation a decade ago "to reflect their family's heartfelt commitment to finding lasting solutions to complex social challenges." Jean Case described the Foundation's involvement in the PlayPumps movement to bring clean drinking water to African communities. But she also talked about being open to collaboration with other philanthropists, with NGOs, with governments, with inventors and technologists, and with investors - making the point that PlayPumps isn't the "only solution" to the African water crisis. “We are huge fans of any intervention that brings clean water to people.”

That echoed Behring's remarks a day earlier. "There is no one system that works for water," said Behring, who founded WaterLeaders, a foundation dedicated to creating a “Safe Water Generation” by providing comprehensive and sustainable water solutions. After taking a few lumps in his early efforts, "I decided this was much bigger than I was - that it was no just delivery, it was many things. That it's not just one technology, it's all the technologies."

He added that making mistakes is part of the process - but so is just getting started: “Go there. Let them hold your hand. Then you’ll know what giving is all about.”

Or as Jeff Greenfield said in kicking off the conference - employing the ultimate irony in quoting Karl Marx to a group of self-made capitalists:

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

April 23, 2007

Capitalism and Philanthropy: the Milken View

If there can be said to be a single organizing principal of this Milken Global Conference, you'd have to choose this one: its organizers' core belief that the opening of capital markets is inherently good for human society. Applied to philanthropy, that belief in capitalism came out in what may well be the manifesto of this year's conference - that in the United States, "capitalism and philanthropy are twin expressions of an underying set of values."

That principal was laid forth in today's panel on "Entrepreneurial Philanthropy" by Don Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Randel argued that public civility, an organized well-regulated society, and the rule of law expressed "a kind of trust," a common belief that allows those in the society to believe in institutions.

"The culture of philanthropy rests on the same values that the great success of American business and free markets rest on," he said.

Milken Capitalism Panel

Teresa Heinz Kerry, serving on the same panel, took that theme of civic trust a step further, arguing that American volunteerism was what spurred its philanthropic instinict.

"Because you had to cross the country, you had to band together and perservere, there is a real history of volunteerism that you don't experience in other countries, and I've lived all over the world. All the kinds of group support systems - it's an American thing, it doesn't happen anyplace else. It is the great strength of America, going beyond yourself. That is why American philanthropy is so dominant."

Mike Milken noted that "individuals give today at least four times what comes out of corporations and foundations - most of the money being given is coming from individuals." And while that's true, the economists on his Nobel winners panel at lunch focused not on individuals, but on systems; economists tend to shy away from philanthropy as a major economic driver - even though the combination of individual philanthropy and overeas remittances (money sent back by immigrants to their countries of origin) - amounts to half a trillion dollars each year.

The ecomomists Gary Becker and Kenneth Arrow tussled lightly over the role of government in the increasingly capitalist world society, but really around the edges it was an argument over just how much good light regulation could do to continue to spur capitalist growth. They approached the world's healthcare needs - from disease in the developing world to the aging population of western nations - from a purely democraphic-economic standpoint: there are more aging people, so a market for caring for aging people is of value. Malarial and other deaths from poor water will decrease when market conditions align to fix the problem. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa has discouraged investments in higher education because people who don't believe they're going to live very long don't invest in learning and aspiration.

A little cool and clear, shall we say, like the weather here in Los Angeles today.

But sometimes the truth is best served with a chilly breeze, especially in a world that celebrates its philanthropist-capitalists on the very same magazine covers increasing numbers. Becker was merely voicing a common perception when he stated that allowing markets to create social change - in their own time, of course - "is the greatest gift capitalism has provided."

While traditional philanthropy is honored here (there are any number of big-name foundation leaders here, from Milken himself to Eli Broad), it's innovation and collaboration that are the watchwords; that overlap with capitalism and creating markets. It's no accident that Milken launched its first philanthropy track this year - less than 12 months after Warren Buffett's historic gift and in cultural wash of increased media attention to giving. Still, when Carl Schramm, president of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, stated boldly that "foundations historically have been the most critical institution in the advancement of society," there wasn't a rush to agree.

Indeed, as a brand, the word "foundation" isn't particularly in favor. Here's the advice Don Randel had for the budding philanthropists of today:

"Don't go hire a bunch of foundation bureaucrats to run it for gets to be a business of self-perpetuation, with more and more layers of hoops to jump through to provide every last grant. And then grant manangers begin to think it's their money."

September 26, 2006

A Campaign to Get Americans to Help When There Isn’t a Disaster

New York Times:  Recognizing that procrastination is an enemy of good intentions, a new public service effort, to be announced today, aims to persuade Americans to actually act upon their altruistic impulses.

September 25, 2006

PayPal Founder pledges $3.5 Million to antiaging research

MPrize: Peter A. Thiel, co-founder and former CEO of online payments system PayPal, Founder and Managing Member of Clarium Capital Management, a San Francisco-based hedge fund, and angel investor in social networking site Facebook, has announced his pledge of $3.5 Million to support scientific research into the alleviation and eventual reversal of the debilities caused by aging, to be conducted under the auspices of the Methuselah Foundation, a charity co-founded and Chaired by Dr. Aubrey de Grey.

September 18, 2006

Magazine offers philanthropy advice

Newsday: Bloomberg, Buffett, Bono, Gates: For people with lots of money, giving away tons of it could be the new black. But for anyone else interested in spreading a little of their wealth around the world where disaster churns through the news daily, philanthropy can be tricky. Will their dollars be used wisely? Will it go to the most deserving charity? Lisa Gyselen and her husband, Garry, contemplated these questions last summer as floodwaters coursed through New Orleans. Contribute magazine, which premiered in April, helps donors explore their options in the increasingly complex field of philanthropy.

August 15, 2006

Boomers take up volunteer work — if it matters

Seattle Times: Days after retiring from a 31-year government career, Judi Cotner Montoya set about creating her next identity — community volunteer. The 61-year-old Queen Anne resident knew what she wanted: a challenge that demanded the same energy as her old midmanagement job and used her skills in public speaking, mediation and management.

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