June 27, 2006

Warren Buffett gives $37bn to Bill Gates' Foundation and Gates to leave Microsoft to run it all

The decision by Bill Gates to give all his time in future to his foundation, and then by Warren Buffett to add $37bn to the fund, will together trigger a series of events of truly lasting significance.

Firstly we can expect many more ultra-high net worth individuals to make similar decisions, giving both time and money to help change the future of our world for the better - albeit on a smaller scale, but the cumulative impact could well be even greater.

Building a better world is a powerful driving motivation behind the fact that almost all ultra-high net worth families have their own charitable foundations.

Warren Buffett is unusual in that he has left it comparatively late in wealth-making to begin his large-scale philanthropic activity.

It is easy to be cynical about such motivation but the fact is that 60% of all US citizens regularly give time to things they believe in and the average gift of time is 200 hours a year. Costed at the average hourly rate for earnings, this is a total gift worth the equivalent of 4.5% of US GDP. Similar proportions of the population give time in the UK and many other EU countries. People give time or money because they feel that in doing so they are able to make a positive difference in some small way to others.

Large-scale philanthropy is just an extension of this normal pattern of community involvement.

This whole area is much misunderstood by many corporations, who tend to regard corporate and social responsibility as a minor addition to the doctrine that companies exist only to make money for shareholders. The trouble is that it is very rare to meet anyone who gets out of bed in the morning passionate about making more shareholder value. Numbers-based leadership is a powerful turn-off to most executives - as I have seen in speaking with senior audiences in many different countries and corporations over the last decade.

It should be no surprise therefore that a recent UK survey showed that 90% of 35-45 year olds in business jobs want to leave, while 60% of 25-35 year olds cannot see any purpose in what they do, working each day for a corporation. Numbers cannot produce passion nor purpose, unless people see what the numbers actually mean in terms of making a difference in ways that they feel are important.

Thus we have a serious mismatch between the passions people have for what they do outside of formal employment - where they gladly work for nothing, and their almost complete lack of interest by contrast in what they are actually paid to do.

If corporations could tap into even 1% of the energy which people enthusiastically devote to "good causes" or which causes Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to give away tens of billions each, we would have a completely different situation in the workplace today.

This is one reason why so-called cause-related marketing has taken off so fast, linking products to things people feel passionate about. In an age where products and services tend to converge in price and quality, values are what makes all the difference.

The second thing we can expect from the Gates and Buffet decisions is that many more business leaders who also feel the same kinds of desires to make the world a better place, are going to feel added courage to use the business itself as a positive driver of change. Why wait until they leave?

And they will know that the majority of their shareholders, staff and customers who also give time and money to things they feel passionate about, are likely to react positively to their leadership, with added commitment and loyalty, so long as the business is well run in every respect.

The third impact of the new Gates - Buffet alliance will be a gathering momentum for radical improvements in Africa, India and other such parts of the world. It will not be easy, but the pressure will grow further to find practical ways to make a difference.

Because of the way the markets devalue currencies of failing nations, as I have discovered in my own AIDS foundation ACET, a single dollar is enough to pay the school fees for an orphan for three weeks in a country like Zimbabwe. A million dollars is enough to hire 5,000 men or women for 3 months. It is hard to grasp the scale of opportunity when many billions of dollars can be converted into currency in some of the poorest nations (sensitively or else it will distort the local economy), in order to invest in a wide range of community-based, sustainable development projects.

And of course health is a basic requirement. The poorest nations continue to suffer needlessly from easily preventable illnesses and terrible handicaps like the loss of site at early ages.

The Bill Gates Foundation has already had significant impact on a wide range of such conditions and we can look forward to far more in the future.