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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Generous Billionaires

It's not one of those things where someone would think you've been living under a rock if you hadn't heard about it. Bill and Melinda Gates are known for their vast philanthropy --- endowing one of the richest foundations ever in the history of the world. Most people would consider them to be not only generous, but smart with their generosity. But they've been doing something in philanthropy that's noteworthy. They've been effecting other people's wealth and giving. And they've been doing it on purpose.

The first surprise was when Warren Buffet decided to transfer his philanthropy to their foundation. Huh? Apparently Buffet decided their smartness outweighed his own when it comes to using money for social good. So the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation became endowed with not only their wealth, but with the wealth of Warren Buffet as well. It seemed to impart some sort of strategic validation to the efforts of the Gates' foundation - as if to say that what they're doing has such a better chance of saving the world.

Needless to say, what Warren Buffet did was an unprecedented move in the philanthropy "industry." Philanthropists and non-profit executives around the world sat up and took notice. Surely it meant something in philanthropic circles. Something more than just the money.

Now the Gates' are known for undertaking a number of innovative approaches to worthwhile causes with their foundation. They place big bets on what they believe are initiatives that will actually make the world a better place. Typically these bets are in areas like education or health care. When you put money into your own foundation, you get the immediate tax deduction. You also get the right to spend that money pretty much any way you please (within some reasonable boundaries that are set by the federal tax code). So there's plenty of room for innovation. There's plenty of room for trial-and-error, experimentation --- and even failure. (The money can be squandered.)

It's probably safe to say that the jury is still out on whether or not Bill & Melinda Gates can use their wealth - along with the wealth of Warren Buffet - to make the world a better place. Nevertheless, they're getting credit for the sheer size of their philanthropy, and the impact it's having on other people's giving.

We tend to think, in modern society, that if people give a lot of money to charity ... then they are generous. And we tend to think that a lot of money going into charity is a good thing --- because we think it will make a difference. We think it will change the world for the better. Is that a safe assumption to make? Does have to be given and spent in certain ways to actually make a difference? Does money have to make a difference?

Let's think about the reasoning behind philanthropy. Those who have give for the benefit of those who have not. That's admittedly a loose translation, but most philanthropy follows that same basic assumption in some form or fashion. The problem is that money given by those who have isn't always benefiting those who have not. The recent growth of "donor advised funds" allows people, for example, to donate money to a non-profit entity and then direct how and when that money actually gets used to benefit others. And it could take several generations to actually see that money spent. (For an example of that, see

Recently, Bill & Melinda Gates, along with Warren Buffet, are back in the news again. They have publicly challenged America's other billionaires to pledge at least half of their wealth to charity. And many of those billionaires are taking the challenge and making the pledge. ( So far, there's no stipulation or even guidance from the Gates' as to where the money will be donated or how it will be spent. The initiative is simply trying to get massive amounts of wealth committed to non-profit agendas.

The news wires are treating this as a very big deal. (Perhaps it is.) The world seems to be pretty impressed. These rich people are being lauded as if they were heroes. The clapping and cheering can be heard worldwide.

But there are flaws in this kind of thinking. Patty Fisher, a columnist with the San Jose (California) Mercury News sheds light on a couple of those flaws this week. ( Specifically, Ms. Fisher cites the fact that these billionaires could donate something besides money --- and she argues that their talents or influence, for example, could be even more valuable than their money. (The Gates' illustrate that point with their influence.)

Fisher also made note of the billionaires who haven't taken the pledge, and questioned the motives of those who have. Not unexpectedly, Ms. Fisher also argued that a billionaire giving half of their wealth to charity isn't making much of a sacrifice. And there you have it --- the elephant in this room. In fact, I suspect it is the most important point in this whole philanthropic discussion. Let's take a look.

When rich people give a lot of money, does it mean that they are generous? Most of modern society would say it does. But what is the true measure of generosity? How can it be so accurately defined? Jesus actually addressed this. He defined generosity when He told the story of the widow giving her few coins. Jesus specifically cited the fact that while others gave out of their wealth (or excess) ... the poor widow gave out of her poverty (or sacrifice). (Mark 12:43-44 and Luke 21:3-4). This is where Jesus clearly defined what generous is.

Generous people give until it hurts. They give out of their sacrifice ... and not out of their excess. If I give plenty, but I still have excess, then I still have not achieved generosity. Only when my giving cuts into my lifestyle - and imposes on my faith in God's provision - do I get to call myself generous. Can you accept that definition?

Jesus said He is "the way and the truth ..." (John 14:6) So when Jesus defines something, anything, the definition is final. There is no other definition; nothing to be discussed or considered. What Jesus says - about anything - is the truth.

Now it seems a reasonably simple concept to apply Jesus' definition of generosity to the reality of our giving. Give out of your sacrifice instead of giving out of your excess. And that's not hard to figure out in the the case of billionaires who can give away half their wealth and still be the richest people in the world. But it's even easier to apply this Biblical truth to common people ... the middle class and the poor people. It's easier to see when they're giving out of their sacrifice.

On-line mediums, like Facebook, Twitter, blogs or other venues have become quite popular for philanthropy. Anyone can start a charity, a non-profit or just run a giving campaign to raise money for their favorite cause. You may have seen the opportunity to buy a rubber band bracelet for a dollar and have the proceeds go to fight cancer. Or you've seen people joining a Facebook site to "support" a cause. Maybe you've taken used clothing and toys to the collection bins in the shopping center parking lots. Or perhaps you've donated used furniture to the thrift shop. Folks, stuff like this does not make any of us generous. Heck, it doesn't even make us effective!

Philanthropy needs a new game. In fact, it's game is getting worse instead of better. The world is hurting now more than ever. And we have the potential to do more good now than ever before. Unfortunately, our lame excuses for generosity are getting in the way. We believe the lie that giving a lot of money helps solve a social problem. It doesn't. Instead, a strong argument could be made for the fact that social problems don't get solved until people make sacrifices to solve them. So it isn't really even about money at all.

I challenge you to consider your own level of generosity. Are you giving until it hurts? Are you giving such that it requires faith to move forward? Are you making personal sacrifices for the greater good? And I challenge you to consider whom you bestow admiration upon for their philanthropy. Rock concerts to raise money, selling bracelets, holding auctions, etc. "liking" a cause on Facebook .... have done precious little to impact the world.

It's time that modern day Christians take a hard look at Jesus' definition of generosity (i.e., philanthropy) in the story of the widow and her two coins. And it's time that we apply this simple Biblical truth to our own giving and caring.

Moreover, when rich people give billions to their favorite cause, we can not assume that the world's problems are getting solved. Frankly, money just doesn't have that much power. But generosity? It holds all the real power!

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