Last year, Warren Buffett threw down the gauntlet: Here's what philanthropy looks like on the grandest scale. Together, he and Bill Gates have set out to change the world using a private foundation through which $60 billion of their money will flow to a variety of causes, most specifically educating children globally and protecting those in impoverished nations from the ravages of disease.
This year, other philanthropists are going to have to figure out how they will rise to the challenge. Does the Buffett-Gates partnership mean philanthropists with mere millions to donate have suddenly become less important? Will Buffett-Gates philanthropy inspire them to give more, in more creative ways and make a bigger difference? Or will they focus locally, rather than globally, where they can have a clear impact?
After reading for the first time the writings of American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet Walt Whitman wrote: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” In the coming years, philanthropy will reach a boil. Far from being marginalized by the Buffett-Gates behemoth, American philanthropists will be encouraged to enter the game more aggressively and more strategically; they'll become more involved personally.
Remember that when we talk about philanthropy, we're talking about a distinctly American creation. After his tour of the United States in the early 1800s, noted French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed that philanthropy took root in a people who didn't have the patience to wait for government to answer their civic needs. Earlier generations had sought out like-minded neighbors to create and fund social institutions that fit their communities and their beliefs. This is our heritage. Buffett and Gates have simply magnified the principle a billion-fold.
Inevitably, the year 2007 will call for new rounds of philanthropic activism. We may see environmental crises and natural disasters, international political upheaval, desperation over how to cope with the world's aging populations. Certainly, there will be sickness, poverty and hunger. Whatever the need, the philanthropic community will have the great advantage of observing how Buffett and Gates — people of good will, intelligence and major financial assets — take the broadest, highest, longest and deepest approach to finding solutions.
Contrary to the fears of many social critics, individual philanthropists will not surrender the field to Buffett and Gates. What, then, can we expect to see?
First, the Buffett-Gates partnership helps other philanthropists define their turf. The necessity of giving away so much money as quickly as has been promised and to the degree required by law will drive the Gates Foundation to higher altitudes. That means others donors will be able to work at ground level, seeing intimately the impact of their giving. Even though they may affect the lives of fewer people, these philanthropists may have the satisfaction of connecting more closely with individuals in need. They will be able to see how those whom they've touched are being truly transformed.
Let's look at three examples of “human scale” giving that preceded the Buffett-Gates partnership and signal post Buffett-Gates initiatives.
In 1981, retired businessman Eugene M. Lang offered a fully paid college education to every sixth grader who graduated from New York City's troubled high school, P.S. 121, Lang's alma mater. Nearly 90 percent graduated — more than three times the expected average graduation rate of students from that neighborhood. And Lang not only made a difference in their lives. Other donors started giving money to fund this successful program. Today, the “I Have a Dream” program has 180 projects in 64 cities across 27 states. More than 14,000 students from some of the country's most disadvantaged communities have been helped to date.
Or take Habitat for Humanity. Founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller, Habitat for Humanity has built and rehabilitated more than 150,000 houses for families in need. Today, it has more than 2,000 affiliates in 92 countries and in every state in the United States. In New York alone, more than 10,000 individuals volunteered last year. Volunteers donate their precious time, rather than dollars. They build one house at a time for one family at a time. The impact they experience is deeply personal and the one-on-one fruits of their labors are tangible.
In a 21st century twist, Donors Choose offers individuals the opportunity to make gifts over the Internet to fund public school needs, teacher-by-teacher and course-by-course. Online you may find a science teacher who needs the funds to buy cocoons for her biology class. Or a film teacher who needs a video camera. Donors to these projects receive photographs of the class using the cocoon or video camera — along with a personal thank you.
Buffett and Gates also have highlighted the advantages of partnering in philanthropy. Buffett was characteristically straightforward when explaining why he made Bill and Melinda Gates stewards of the bulk of his philanthropic dollars: They have the same approach to business and have been successful in their philanthropy to date, he said.
Demystifying and simplifying the partnering process should encourage more individuals and private foundations to work together. Affinity Groups and Giving Circles (both of which currently exist in each state) could experience a boost in activity. Members of Affinity Groups and Giving Circles are individuals and foundations that share an interest in a particular area — for example, inner city education, “green” architecture, or literacy — and combine financial and volunteer resources to advance their cause.
To facilitate giving abroad, we may see more pass-through granting groups like Give2Asia and the King Baudouin Foundation that do due diligence on overseas institutions and programs, allowing Americans more easily to address international needs.
Public-private partnerships are a time-tested model for facilitating collaboration between the public and private sectors. The Gates Foundation is already working with public schools and foreign governments to realize their medical objectives. On a smaller scale, we see cities team with volunteer organizations like the New York Restoration Project, which reclaims abandoned urban green space; Chicago, Louisville and San Francisco each have embraced similar public space initiatives.
But the most significant partnership is yet to come: the intergenerational transfer of wealth. It is projected that within the next 50 years we may see over $40 trillion move from the current generation to the next. That transfer of wealth can create philanthropic opportunities that dwarf even the Buffett and Gates efforts. Even so, Buffett and Gates will provide upcoming generations with the large-scale model for effectuating social change. The key is true partnership, in this case partnership between the generations. Each generation must learn how to be a responsible steward of wealth, how to wield wealth's opportunities and learn its limits. The learning process will be active, interactive, vast in scope, intimate in scale — all the qualities that define the Buffett-Gates partnership and the giving it will inspire