‘We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give’ – Winston Churchill

What an extraordinary year of gifting it has been, on an enormous scale, yet still holding a promise of perpetual growth. Despite what you may feel about Bill Gates and his Microsoft empire, he and legendary investor Warren Buffet have taken philanthropy to an unprecedented level. Direct, massive, recurring aid that will grow over the years, unencumbered by traditional layers of bureaucracy.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (see www.gatesfoundation.org) is now the wealthiest and perhaps most influential philanthropic organization on the planet, thanks to a US$31 billion gift from Buffet, who will give 5% of his Berkshire Hathaway stock each year for the next 20 years. With the Gates Foundation having given away US$1.36 billion in 2005, the Buffet commitment is going to at least double it’s spending. Since the foundation’s inception in 1994, it has donated more than US$10 billion toward global health and education, and is now expanding into agriculture and micro-lending.

On the list of the ten biggest charitable foundations in the US, along with the Gates Family, you will find names like Ford, Lilly, Kellogg, Hewlett and Packard, scions of business who have established legacies that encompass over US$100 billion in assets. That is some very serious coin that one hopes will be employed wisely, at least with more consideration than went into the development of Explorers and Sugar Pops.

Business Week magazine’s annual list of the 50 most generous philanthropists in the US is available on their website at www.businessweek.com, and makes for some interesting reading. For the most part, this is not ‘old’ money, but instead reflects fortunes made through culture shifts of just the last generation

  • Gordon and Betty Moore, of the computer chip maker Intel, have donated over US$2 billion towards scientific and environmental causes
  • Michael Dell, founder of Dell computers, has given US$674 million towards children’s health and education
  • Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York city, has given US$550 million in support of public health, education and the arts
  • Jeffrey Skoll, the founder of eBay, has provided US$486M towards “social entrepreneurship”
  • Ted Turner, the CNN founder, has given US$423 million towards environmental and global security issues
  • Oprah Winfrey has donated US$251 million in support of education and family health
  • David Geffen, founder of DreamWorks Studios, has gifted US$211 million to fight HIV/AIDS and support civil liberties

Let me toss a few more big numbers at you. In just three days earlier this year, the Clinton Global Initiative raised commitments valued at US$7.3 billion to tackle issues such as poverty and global warming. President Clinton managed to bring together leaders from a wide variety of political, ideological, religious, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds – including current and former heads of state, top business executives, pre-eminent scholars, and representatives of key non-governmental organizations. The man has some pretty decent connections, and is now loose of the ties of governing and appeasing. Something tells me he’s up to some good.

The current Canadian government, with plans to spend $260 million on cancer research and $120 million on HIV/AIDS, looks almost scroogey by comparison. The Gates Foundation alone will be giving about US$3,000 million every year in support of their mission, and that’s just a start, as the foundation’s asset base is likely to increase into the future.

Buffet was quoted as saying that his fortune would be better spent by a foundation than by the federal government through taxes on his estate, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. That the mega rich and influential should be so effective at mobilizing massive financial support for social and environmental causes is an eye opener, and encouraging when you think of how the world might solve some of it’s most urgent problems.

And if you’re tired of hearing about the wealthy throwing their money around, you can look to a Statistics Canada survey released this year that demonstrates low-income earners are no slouches when it to comes to charitable donations. Actually, those who earn the least tend to give away the most when measured as a percentage of income. In 2004, those earning less than $20,000 a year gave away on average 1.7 per cent of their income. Those with household incomes of more than $100,000 gave away an average of 0.5 per cent.

Our spirits were also lifted this year by the story of Roberta Langtry, who for 55 years had made a living as a teacher and speech therapist for a Toronto School Board. The Globe and Mail reported that she had quietly accumulated a substantial portfolio of stocks and bonds, including shares of IBM that she had begun to purchase over 50 years ago. In a stunning announcement, the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced that her estate had left them a gift of $4.3 million, in what is thought to be the largest ever bequest in support of conservation in the history of Canada.

A wise man once told me something to the effect that, if we all gave away everything we had nobody would want for anything. The words of John Lennon echo in my mind – ‘imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can’, along with the thoughts of many other sages past. Some of the most inspirational stories of the ages revolve around giving. It’s the true joy of Christmas, and part of the essence of what makes us human.

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