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Philanthropy: How to give away $1B

Mark Zuckerberg's letter to his new daughter Max, in which he promises to dedicate his fortune to philanthropy, was addressed to one person, and read and discussed by millions — but 1,825 people will have paid special attention. These are the other members of the elite club of the world's billionaires according to the latest annual count by Forbes magazine, with an aggregate wealth of $7 trillion.

Mr Zuckerberg's peers have most likely already turned their mind to philanthropy. If they are among the 230 who inherited their $1 billion, they may have been giving their whole lives; if they made their money more recently in industrialising China or by siring a unicorn in Silicon Valley, they have no doubt been seized by the opportunity to aid those less fortunate and to leave the world a better place. In either case, they are engaging in philanthropic endeavour at an intriguing time, as old ways of giving are being challenged and even the definition of what it means to be a philanthropist appears to be expanding.


Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

High-profile gestures like Mr Zuckerberg's promise to dedicate 99 per cent of his Facebook wealth to good causes have stoked debate, particularly in the US where the tradition of large-scale philanthropy stretches back to the robber-barons John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. In this second gilded age, societies are again weighing the right balance between encouraging philanthropy and taxing wealth for redistribution by government.

For the budding philanthropist, however, there are more pressing matters to decide, choices on how quickly, how broadly, how controversially and through what legal structures they should act.

All the questions reflect debates raging in philanthropy. It is no easy task: how do you give away a billion dollars?

Giving while living

It is much more fun to give while you live than to give while you are dead, Chuck Feeney is fond of saying.

The Irish-American businessman, 84, who founded the Duty Free Shoppers retail chain in 1960, is the modern exemplar of the "giving while living" movement, which argues the wealthy should begin their philanthropy early — and finish it early, too. The movement is a challenge to the traditional model of US philanthropy, under which the foundations created by John D Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Andrew Mellon are still among the largest charities in the country almost seven decades after the last of the founders died, spending only the income from their endowments.

Mr Feeney's Atlantic Philanthropies, to which he granted his ownership stake in DFS back in 1984, was given a fixed end-date of 2020. It will make its final grants next year and will ultimately have donated assets that totalled $8 billion to causes as diverse as care for dementia sufferers in Ireland, Aids prevention in South Africa and the fight against the death penalty in the US.

The name of Julius Rosenwald, founder of the retailer Sears, barely registers compared with a Rockefeller, but it is revered among the "giving while living" advocates since he was the first to say his fortune should be spent down, rather than used to endow an enduring organisation. It ran out in 1948, 16 years after his death.

Family foundations, designed to pass to future generations, remain the mainstream US model, however, and it is one that has been exported successfully abroad. Philanthropy advisers say it is being copied by newly-minted billionaires in China and, in the Middle East, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud said this year he would create a foundation for his children to run after his death as "a commitment to all humankind".


The reason the "giving while living" movement is in the ascendancy in the US has to do with more than just the "fun" Mr Feeney talks about, the satisfaction of seeing one's money having an effect. There is also the argument from maths.

Waiting till later makes sense only if you think money grows faster than problems, says Hal Harvey, chief executive of Energy Innovation, an environmental policy adviser. Big spending on climate change action is more effective, he says, than dribbling grants out over years as carbon continues to build up in the atmosphere. "If the negative one compounds faster than the positive one," he says, "spend your goddamn money."

For Christopher Oechsli, chief executive at Atlantic Philanthropies, it is also a matter of modesty. "It is not like we are the only entity that has wealth to deploy for public good. Don't be so self-absorbed as to believe that what you think and what you do is critical to the world to the exclusion of others. There's more wealth coming!"

Pick a cause, don’t fall in love

When the overnight billionaires of the tech industry turn up on the doorstep of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a donor advisory organisation, it presents them with a tin of playing cards. Each is printed with a value — humility, justice, tradition, for example — or a cause — civil rights, food safety, housing and shelter. The aim is to help the wannabe philanthropist decide what to focus on. Truly there are a billion ways to give away a billion dollars.

A key early question, says Melissa Berman of another donor advisory organisation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, is whether to pick a broad set of causes under an umbrella theme, or a narrow set of challenges to work on.

Perhaps it is the breadth of Facebook's impact in our lives, but its founders have set out strikingly broad ambitions. Mr Zuckerberg set a goal to "advance human potential and promote equality for all children" and in that public letter to his newborn daughter Max he ranged widely over potential focus areas, from personalised education to curing diseases to building communities.

Meanwhile, his Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, with his wife Cari Tuna, have taken a methodical approach to picking interventions from a giant spreadsheet that includes an assessment of the value of everything from preventing asteroids hitting the earth to giving cash grants to villagers in Kenya. (The asteroids did not get the money; the Kenyan villagers did.)

Ms Tuna's striking message about picking causes is, do not fall in love. She says that getting out into the field to assess a charity's work can have a downside. "It's quite easy to fall in love with an issue," she says. "Site visits are an important tool once you've chosen your focus area; it's less valuable as a comparative tool."

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Advocates of a narrow approach — perhaps tackling diseases that have claimed family members, or acting on social problems in your neighbourhood — say it can be easier to bring passion to fewer causes.

Sean Parker, a Facebook investor, wrote earlier this year that philanthropists need to concentrate on areas where they have a unique insight or novel approach. Narrow does not mean unambitious, but it does mean that the ambitious philanthropists will need to think about their tolerance for risk.

There is an "eggs in one basket" issue, says Ms Berman. A philanthropist who bets big on, for example, a genomic approach to cancer may end up with little to show, she says, "except that you could argue you saved the medical community from spending $1 billion going up a blind alley".

Getting political

How comfortable are you with getting political? Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, author of Giving 2.0 and wife of venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, is asking because with a billionaire's ambition to produce big changes in the world comes the need to galvanise both the public and politicians. Anyone wanting to alleviate the problem of homelessness in San Francisco, for example, quickly understands that changing city government policies will have more lasting impact than funding shelters. No one person is going to solve climate change, which is why donors such as Jeff Skoll, a former eBay executive, have focused on galvanising public opinion through grass roots campaign groups, public relations and, a decade ago, funding the production of the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

System-wide change is an explicit goal of many of today's richest philanthropists — it is certainly more fashionable than building hospitals or funding museums — but it is difficult and controversial.

Ms Arrillaga-Andreessen's book includes a whole section called Going Into Battle. "As an advocacy philanthropist, you need to be certain of your beliefs and prepared to defend your principles," she wrote.


Controversy goes with the territory. There has never been a clear line between philanthropy and politics. Figures who are more widely known as political donors, such as Charles and David Koch, also fund philanthropic operations that dovetail with their beliefs. The Charles Koch Foundation funds scholarships and academic chairs to promote research into free markets and pays for the Economic Freedom of the World Index at the Fraser Institute.

The cause of changing the US education system through the creation of charter schools — new institutions within the public sector but semi-detached from local authority control — is supported by everyone from the Walton retail family and hedge fund managers to Bill Gates. But it has also come up against fierce union resistance.

Mr Harvey argues that philanthropists need to make a clear choice: "You can get as much good press as you want, just give money to the local boys and girls club or the local symphony. The smaller the problem you tackle, the stronger your gratification signals. With systemic change, even if you succeed, the causal chain is murky. There is less attribution, less social credit."

But consider this: even giving one-off lump sums to well-established, non-political institutions is no guarantee of steering clear of public criticism, as John Paulson found this year. The hedge fund manager's $400m gift to Harvard University was criticised as perpetuating inequality by further endowing an already elite institution.

Turning your back on a classic model

It was a "no-brainer", said eBay founder Pierre Omidyar in 2003, when he decided to reject the traditional model of US philanthropy and stop using a charitable foundation for his giving. There would be an extra tax bill of $1m or $2m a year, but in the context of spending $100m annually on good works, that seemed a small price to pay for what, years later, he called "the flexibility to use every possible tool to improve the world".

Charitable foundations have been the bedrock structure for conducting philanthropy at scale in the US for more than a century. Some of the value of gifts to a personal foundation can be offset against other taxes, and in return, the government requires that the organisations disperse at least 5 per cent of their assets each year and sets other rules, including a ban on political activity.

The eBay founder's decision to conduct his philanthropy through the Omidyar Network, a limited liability company without tax privileges but without restrictions, has been followed by the likes of Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, and now by Mr Zuckerberg.

Grants have accounted for only about half the LLC's $890m of spending since inception, says Matt Bannick, managing partner at the Omidyar Network. Its for-profit "impact investments" go alongside, fitting Mr Omidyar's aims of promoting financial inclusion and access to the internet; they include Paga, a mobile phone-based money transfer service in Nigeria and eCurrency Mint, a Dublin company that allows central banks to create digital currencies similar to bitcoin.

"How many non-profits have scaled up from zero to $50m in revenue over the past 40 years?" Mr Bannick says. "The answer, according to a study by Bridgespan, a non-profit adviser, is 142. How many for-profits have done so? It is tens of thousands. If their product or service is contributing to the good of the world, they can have a more significant positive impact."

The emergence of these multi-pronged approaches to using a $1 billion fortune have changed what it means to consider oneself a philanthropist. Making a donation and having a library named after you pales against the ambition of a new generation of givers.

The success of this evolution will be measured not only by the diseases cured, the lives saved or improved and the social challenges overcome, but also in part by the acceptance of this approach among the public at large.

For now, there are some sceptics. Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica, the investigative journalism outfit founded by subprime mortgage billionaires Marion and Herbert Sandler, tweeted after Mr Zuckerberg's pledge this month: "I'm so grateful to Silicon Valley for having disrupted my definition of philanthropy."