Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Meeting the Richest Man in the World

Well, sort of. Last week was the Gates Challenge Gala Event, where we thanked those who gave $100,000 or more to the Gates Challenge with United Way, matched by the Gates Fund. Our goals have been more than met this year, with $38 Million raised for United Way, and over $15 Million for the Gates Challenge. And these were goals that were an order of magnitude higher than the goals of previous years.

So the Thank You was to these 100K+ Givers, and hosted by Jeff Raikes, who spoke of wanting to help King County see what United Way actually does, and how focused we now are on key priorities of the area- this isn't your Father's United Way, only disbursing money to others. We now have strict guidelines that charities need to follow in order to get United Way funds, so that we can find those who can best assist others, and encourage them to higher rates of excellence.

I was there simply to help my boss, Ruby, who's baby this was. The big givers were there to get some face time with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. After a fabulous 5-star lunch (with creme brulée, no less), Bill and Warren came on stage to share some of their thoughts on giving. Warren, in an inimically folksy style, spoke of how Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations inspired the specialization of labor, and how we can use that as a model for philanthropy. He argued that the enemy of progress is complacency, and shared how nothing in his life had ever changed because of contributions he's made; he hadn't suffered or given up anything, so he deserves no credit for the billions he's given to the Gates Foundation. He's given only on surplus; the credit goes to those who truly give of the little they have.

At one point Warren's company, Berkshire Hathaway, had a great shareholder giving plan. He didn't want to decide where the money was donated- he felt that was the right of the shareholders. So any shareholder could specify up to three charities, and Berkshire Hathaway would give to those three, commensurate with the number of share of that particular shareholder. As one might think, a wide variety of charities then received money from Berkshire Hathaway- some 4000 charities, for the amount of $200 Million total. Some were pro-life, and some pro-choice, and most not at all related to the issue. But controversy rose over Planned Parenthood receiving some funds. Pampered Chef, a sort of Amway for kitchen wares that was meaningful in empowering many women, was bought by Berkshire Hathaway, and then immediately targeted by Pro-Lifers, with a rather vicious campaign to destroy the livelihood of those working for Pampered Chef. Warren felt that a $100 Million boycott of See's Candies wouldn't have hurt him, but this did, and so the unique giving campaign was ended.

Bill reminded me in features a lot of a young Stephen Hawking, before his illness. Not overbearing in the slightest, and almost shy. He shared about how his mom was heavily involved with the United Way of King County, and she had had a great influence on him in his commitment to United Way. He wanted to encourage giving throughout Microsoft, but not in the mandatory manner that was common in companies at the time. Instead he used a carrot and stick approach, to inspire greater giving. He waxed eloquent on United Way, and how our oversight (in his opinion) is more efficient. In the past United Way of King County did well with traditional companies (like banks) with strong CEOs, who encouraged giving throughout the organization. But now those traditional companies are a smaller portion of the economy, and people in America want to have more autonomy in their giving, and giving is therefore now more diverse. He saw United Way as being able to move with the times, and restructure our fundraising strategies rather successively.

Lastly he shared some about the Gates Foundation, with it's primary focus on world health. They realized that if health is improved, countless other areas of life would be improved. He hopes to contribute to finding some level of cure for half the diseases that are on their list, within the next ten years. Additionally, the Gates Foundation is giving back to the U.S., with 25% of it's funds committed to improving high school programs. To give an indication on what these billions could do, the U.S. government doesn't do research on drug discovery for the malaria vaccine currently. The Gates Foundation hopes to invest in finding a cure. Were they to do so, not only would many millions no longer die from malaria, but due to the nature of recessive gene natural selection in African populations, within a couple hundred years sickle cell anemia could completely disappear as well. Already the rate of the disease in the African-American population is much lower than those in Africa, because there is nearly no malaria to contend with in the U.S.

An interesting experience, overall. I didn't actually meet Bill, of course, nor did I expect to. But it was the first time I was in the room with him, and the elite of Seattle, who have all given so much in order to help out others who are in need.

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