Philanthropic Gesture Truly Inspirational

July 23, 2006 - Sioux Falls Argus Leader, by Marty Gallanter

The richest man in the world got a gift from maybe the second richest man in the world.  Warren Buffett will “invest” thirty billion dollars in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The magnitude of the donation alone is historic, but it’s the process that may change the face of philanthropy. 

Buffet managed to resist the usual ego temptation of placing billions in an entity that will bear his name forever.  Instead, he chose to recognize the effectiveness of the Gates Foundation’s efforts by nearly doubling the amount of money they will have to effect change.  Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are without doubt the two greatest creators of wealth in American history.  Now they will carry that talent into what could be the most powerful change agent since the New Deal.

Gates, who Buffett called “the smartest man I ever met,” has already proven that his activist foundation model can work, will now get to expand his philanthropic reach almost as far as that of the company he founded.  Next year, Bill will give up his day-to-day management position at Microsoft and dive into the deep end of the pool of philanthropy.  I am sure that decision helped to motivate Warren Buffett’s generosity.  That and the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is credited with saving more than six hundred thousand lives through its vaccination initiative alone.  Warren must figure that his money can help raise the number even further.

The Gates Foundation approach to philanthropy is unique.  Rather than simply fund traditional service delivery organizations, they have motivated the formation of new groups to struggle with massive problems.  In some cases they have administered the programs themselves.  Their approach is simple.  Some of the problems of poverty can be alleviated by money.  For example, they have a good shot at virtually eliminating malaria in Africa through the provision of five dollar mosquito nets to families who have never even seen five dollars all at one time.  Their thinking is unconventional for the foundation world and their results are unparalleled.  Sure they have made their share of mistakes, but Gates is convinced that one cannot make major gains without taking major risks.

If I have any concerns about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation it is that with the exception of the all-important library technology initiative, they have had minimal impact on life in the Midwest .  Most of their investments are on the two coasts or overseas.  Maybe with the infusion of money from Omaha ’s Warren Buffett, that will change.  One can always hope.

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