The Good News about Philanthropy

The '90s gave us an era of enormous wealth creation and rising inequality. While almost everyone enjoyed the economic fruits of the decade, the gap between rich and poor widened. The last time this happened, in the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie called upon his cohorts to give much of their wealth to the poor and needy, and to do so in their own lifetimes. A century later, in 1997, Ted Turner challenged the high-tech, media, and finance billionaires of his time to do the same. And he gave away $1 billion to start it off. Then came Bill Gates, who is far and away the most generous giver in history, donating fully 60% of his current net worth.

Turner's challenge and Gates's generosity are transforming philanthropy on a scale that outdoes the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Fords. Thanks, in part, to the amazing stock market run-up, dented but not nearly depleted by the recent sell-off, charitable donations by individuals have grown by 50%, from $110 billion to $164 billion between 1990 and 2001. If present trends continue, philanthropy could total $1 trillion more in this decade than in the previous one. To measure the progress of the current generation's generosity, BusinessWeek is composing an annual list of the 50 most generous American philanthropists (page 82). For some, anonymous donations are the purest form of giving, and they, unfortunately, cannot be recognized. For others, the list will serve to reward philanthropy and to encourage it.

The new philanthropy consciously challenges the cautious, bureaucratic style of many of today's foundations. It is much more personal, with philanthropists playing direct roles in their foundations. It is more strategic, with benefactors applying the systematic models they use in business to their organizations. It is results-driven, with the new philanthropists demanding measurable results and attaching strings to their dollars to get them. Finally, the new philanthropy is global.

We don't yet know what impact the new philanthropists will have on the world. The previous generation of tycoons gave libraries to every American city, built world-famous research universities, and ended starvation in Asia. The challenges today involve urban education, AIDS in Africa, the environment, and cancer, among others. Giving is a universal moral virtue, but the giving back to society in gratitude for opportunities received is quintessentially American. In a land of entrepreneurialism and mobility, the children of doctors and housepainters, of parents born here and abroad, can do fabulously well. Many of those who did so in the '90s are now giving back, and America will surely benefit. Happy Thanksgiving!

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