What Can Bill Gates Teach Us in the Carolinas About Philanthropy?

By Josh Jacobson

The Next Stage Consulting blog is committed to covering topics related to life in the Carolinas.  So, what can a billionaire like Bill Gates teach us about what is happening in our own backyards?

First, a refresher on Bill Gates – most likely know him as the founder of Microsoft, the maker of Windows and the Office suite of software products that dominate the business landscape. But if you haven’t been paying attention, you may not know that he and his wife Melinda are the world’s leading philanthropists, having pledged to give away the vast majority of their estimated $78+ billion fortune to charity.

It is an amazing commitment, and one that has inspired more than 100 billionaires to make a similar commitment of donating more than half of their fortunes.  The Giving Pledge now counts high-profile billionaires like financier Warren Buffett, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and recently Virgin Group-founder Richard Branson.

Since 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done some extraordinary things, including the near-eradication of polio from poverty-stricken countries across the world.  In fact, much of the foundation’s work has been on the global stage, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Gates Foundation’s recent annual report focuses on debunking three myths that block progress for the poor throughout the world.

Reading through the 2014 Gates Letter, written by Bill Gates himself, I couldn’t help but draw connections to life in the Carolinas:

MYTH #1: POOR COUNTRIES ARE DOOMED TO STAY POOR
This is a pervasive sentiment for many, that these countries are beyond saving and are systemically damaged.  The letter does a good job of demonstrating that this isn’t true.  Over the last couple generations, global poverty has changed measurably, with the disparity between rich and poor greatly narrowed.  In fact, “there is a class of nations in the middle that barely existed 50 years ago, and it includes more than half of the world’s population.”  Mr. Gates is so confident as to declare that by 2035, “there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.”

The larger point is a good one – real change takes time. It takes a commitment that benchmarks not on a 90-day, annual or even multi-year continuum, but on a decades-long one.  It also requires a right-sized measuring stick.  Goals should be set that are meaningful to the communities served, not as compared to western world assumptions about what should be possible based on personal experiences.

There is much wisdom here that can be applied to the challenges facing our own Carolina communities.  Quick fixes are not likely work. Philanthropists and giving entities are too often interested in narrowly-defined annual returns on investment, wanting to be able prove statistically that their giving has made a difference.  That in turn forces nonprofit organizations to develop evaluation criteria to ensure continued support.

As much as I feel passionately that this is wrongheaded, it is hard to beat up on what few sources of charitable support do exist.  For too many, there is likely an assumption that poverty in our own cities and towns is a given, a fact to accept rather than fight.  For leaders across the Carolinas, it may be useful to debunk this myth for their own communities – how important have public, private and nonprofit interventions been to improving life in the Carolinas?

MYTH #2: FOREIGN AID IS A BIG WASTE
The second myth debunked by Mr. Gates is tied directly to the first – if you think that change is impossible or unlikely, you are also apt to believe spending money on it is a waste of resources that could be put to a better purpose.  The existence of corruption in those countries makes it easy to dismiss efforts – “I mean, how much of foreign aid is really getting to the people it is meant to serve anyways?”

As a fundraiser for much of my professional life, I have encountered this argument time and again – “But what will my small contribution mean in the grand scheme of things?” The problem is that we tend to see things compartmentalized rather than as a big picture.

This is particular true as it relates to compensation of nonprofit employees, which garners more headlines than it deserves.  By focusing on perceived wasteful spending, it becomes easier to throw one’s hands in the air and declare it all a “big waste.” The tendency to view nonprofits and NGOs in the same negative light as “bloated government” has been a slowly developing trend that threatens to undermine the entire sector.

As Next Stage Consulting tells its clients, the key to sustainability is to demonstrate ROI.  But if we’re only measuring in annual increments, as noted in the previous section, are nonprofits actually their own worst enemies?  More should be done by nonprofits to educate stakeholders on the true cost of progress, particularly those who have the capacity to make the biggest impact.

MYTH #3: SAVING LIVES LEADS TO OVERPOPULATION
Admittedly, this myth is less directly applied to life in the Carolinas.  Most folks reading this are unlikely to fear that large scale interventions in poverty-stricken areas of the Carolinas will lead to a scarcity of resources.

But Mr. Gates makes a great case for the damage misinformation can do. This myth only exists because of scientific theories that were misheard, misinterpreted and accepted as fact. Saving lives has not led to overpopulation – in fact, the reverse has been true.  Education leads to more sustainable infrastructures and social progress.

Searching for connection to the Carolinas, the key may be the important role education plays in fighting social causes.  And not just the education of those directly impacted by poverty, but those community leaders called upon by society to do something about it.

CALL TO ACTION
So what can Bill Gates teach us in the Carolinas? Certainly more than one might think, but nothing more so than the commitment to improving the world through making a charitable commitment.  The message of the Gates Foundation is simple – we can all do more to make the world a better place.  And while his foundation’s focus may be on the global stage, consider making yours in neighborhoods across the Carolinas, where progress is indeed measurable and donations most definitely meaningful.

Photo Credit: Featured Image (Modified – Sebastian Derungs, World Economic Forum)

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