Learning and Finding Inspiration From Today’s Leading Philanthropists

“We have been blessed with good fortune beyond our wildest expectations, and we are profoundly grateful. But just as these gifts are great, so we feel a great responsibility to use them well.” Bill and Melinda Gates used this philosophy as the premise for launching The Giving Pledge with their close friend and fellow philanthropist Warren Buffett. This philosophy of being grateful and sharing one’s resources for the betterment of others has no preset dollar threshold that one must meet in order to embrace. Gates’ co-founder at Microsoft, Paul Allen, summarizes this concept stating “Net worth is ultimately defined not by dollars but rather by how well we serve others.” In sum, everyone can give back to others and share a piece piece of their good fortune.

The Gates, Allen and Buffet are some of the nearly 150 billionaires who’ve joined The Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. The pledge requires billionaires to give away at least 50 percent of their wealth in their lifetimes, though Buffett and Zuckerberg have personally committed to giving 99 percent. The Giving Pledge is more than just giving away large sums of money, it is about taking action now in order to make a difference. Hedge fund manager and member of this group Paul Singer describes “The Giving Pledge uniquely combines the direct provision of resources with the power of an idea – the idea that fostering discussions about the purpose of philanthropy may improve our philosophies of giving and lead to better results for those in need.” The majority of the members of those joining Gates and Buffett are self-made business professionals who want to apply their skills, resources and relationships to solving some society’s most vexing problems like helping the world’s poorest people lift themselves out of hunger and poverty, harnessing advances in science and technology to save lives in developing countries, and improving U.S. high school and postsecondary education.

When Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates revealed their plans to ask hundreds of American billionaires to give away at least 50 percent of their wealth to charity, entrepreneur Eli Broad and his wife Edythe were among the first to come on board. The couple named Andrew Carnegie—a self-made industry tycoon who famously dedicated his time and money to philanthropic work after selling his business—as their inspiration for joining. In a joint statement, the Broads said: “We agree with Andrew Carnegie’s wisdom that ‘The man who dies rich, dies disgraced,’ and we also believe ‘he who gives while he lives also knows where it goes.’”

This partnership between Buffett and Gates shifts the giving model towards donating time and mind share rather than just money to a philanthropic cause — a conscious decision to maximize good works without boosting egos. In this model, philanthropy becomes deeply personal. As Buffett stresses, “Many people, including — I’m proud to say — my three children, give extensively of their own time and talents to help others. Gifts of this kind often prove far more valuable than money. A struggling child, befriended and nurtured by a caring mentor, receives a gift whose value far exceeds what can be bestowed by a check.” What is particularly inspiring about this mindset is that it can apply to virtually everyone, not just those who have amassed billions of dollars.

Like the Broads, Bill and Melinda Gates see philanthropy as a family affair. Our current era has been dubbed “the golden age of philanthropy,” and at the forefront of the movement are power couples like the Gates who’ve successfully ushered in a movement of philanthrocapitalism and entrepreneurship into the traditional giving model. This new philanthropic model is encapsulated in Michael Milken’s comment, “Philanthropy is far more than just writing checks. It takes an entrepreneurial approach that seeks out best practices and empowers people to change the world.” In a 2013 interview, sociology professor Linsey McGoey explained:

[The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is] the key philanthrocapitalist foundation today, partly because the Gates Foundation has advocated applying Microsoft strategies to its philanthropic activities. Another reason why the Gates Foundation is often upheld as a key philanthrocapitalist organization is its size. It is the largest private philanthropic player in global health. Its spending on global health exceeds the combined assessed contributions to the World Health Organization (WHO) by member states. The foundation’s annual grants disbursement is almost as large as the overall operating budget of the WHO.”

In the last decade, the philanthropic model has been revolutionized not only by venerable charitable givers like the Gateses and Buffett but they have inspired others who have benefitted from the business booms of the last 10 to 15 years. Take Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. Last December, the couple announced its plans to follow in the footsteps of their contemporaries Gates and Buffett and give away 99 percent of their wealth. The Washington Post reported that “rather than going the traditional routes, Zuckerberg and Chan apparently are following the new trend in impact investing and establishing a limited liability company that will receive the shares. The company will then make the various donations of investments the manager(s) of the company decides is appropriate.” In their own words, “We’ll make long term bets that others won’t make and that will take a decade or longer to achieve their goals.” In June, the couple’s philanthropy project, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC, announced their first big investment: a $24 million Series B funding in Andela, a startup that trains and recruits software developers in Africa.

There are countless strategies for employing active and creative philanthropy. For example, Leslie Wexner, an avid philanthropist recognized decades ago that in addition to his regular charitable activities there was a dire need for philanthropic leaders and community volunteers to be educated, trained and mentored. As such Wexner founded and funded multiple training institutes for leadership development.

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is another big name who has carved a name for himself as a philanthropist with an eagerness to join the likes of Buffett and Gates to make greater impacts in charitable initiatives.

Chief Executive & President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Melissa Berman, said about billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s giving style as one that includes learning as much about the charity as possible, and teaming up with partners like Bill & Melinda Gates. Says Berman, “If you want to have a sustainable impact on a complex, wicked kind of problem, you need partners.” Ms. Berman continues, “Philanthropy is not a competition. It’s really an opportunity for collaboration.”

Bloomberg strongly believes in the power of partnerships to expand what one person, even a billionaire, can do on his or her own. “I’d think being a soloist falls apart,” and continues to say, “I think there’s a limit to how much you can do on your own.” Case in point, Mr. Bloomberg’s foundation has said its foundation has donated $125 million to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s polio eradication efforts. Bloomberg shares the same sentiment, “If we’ve got a problem, let’s do something. I want to find one small thing.” One of those “small” things he spearheaded with former Vice President Al Gore, was the painting of white roofs to save electricity in Queens. Though originally mocked by onlookers, the white roofs, which deflect heat instead of absorbing reduced electricity bill, and is used throughout Queens. Nowhere is this egoless mindset better exemplified than Warren Buffett donating the vast majority of his contributions to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation so that they can combine their resources to affect needed change.

People of far less means can follow in the footsteps of wealthy patrons like Bloomberg or Buffett. They can seek problems that need solving, learn everything possible about the problem, partner with like minded people and organizations and then starts focusing on how to help brick-by-brick.

Bloomberg, Buffett, the Gates, Wexner, Chan, and Zuckerberg only make up the tip of the iceberg. There are many other innovative giving models to learn from and adapt on a smaller more personal scale. In an interview with The Washington Post, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, author of Giving 2.0, pinpointed the reasons and thinking behind technology-focused philanthropic efforts like Tesla’s founder Elon Musk’s, saying:

“The use of technology — to democratize access to so many things people in this country have the blessing to call our basic human rights, whether that’s freedom of expression, access to education [or] medical care, knowledge or being a part of the global economy. There is great interest in Silicon Valley in how we can use technology to break down the barriers to access that so many billions of people in the world face.

That and entrepreneurship. We’re seeing a trend of hybridization of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship that individuals are excited about investing in. Whether it’s investing in for-profit companies that have social value creation inherent in their business models or nonprofits that have revenue generation that will lead to financial self-sustainability for nonprofits.”

Though many of us are lucky enough to be witnesses to an age where philanthropy, status and access can be capitalized on to produce a new philanthropic model, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The philanthropic model at its heart is and has always been simple: one person giving aid, hope, money and/or time to a person, an initiative or a foundation. Famous philanthropists can inspire us to give creatively and impactfully, but in the end, it’s up to every one of us, billionaire or not, to personalize how we choose to give. We can learn and be moved by them regardless of our financial capacity. In doing so, we can all contribute to making the world a better place.