Last night I was contemplating how to make the remaining half of my net-worth last for the rest of the month, when thoughts inevitably turned to the announcement by 30 US billionaires last week that they intend to give at least half their wealth to charitable causes.
The charge of the billionaires is being led by Bill Gates – already well-known for his global funding of research into malaria, HIV/AIDS etc and Warren Buffet. For those of you not familiar with the latter, Warren Buffet is the man whose sage words on the economy and investments are fed upon by millions of Americans whose stock-portfolios are their source of wealth in old-age. This in a country where the array of local radio phone-ins and consumer slots on personal finance make BBC Radio 4’s ‘Money Programme look like small change.
Despite the understandable headlines since, heralding the ‘new philanthropy,’ history is of course littered with the names of the wealthy inspired to give to good causes: Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Paul Getty, Sir Henry Wellcome, Lord Wolfson, Lord Sainsbury. The only difference now is perhaps the scale of wealth involved and the opportunity for – indeed, desire of – such figures to make a significant difference on a global stage.
Private philanthropy has historically been a mostly US phenomenon for all sorts of tax and cultural reasons. The Guardian article linked-to above quotes the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) in the UK as saying that the top 100 philanthropists in this country gave £3.5 billion to good causes and that private philanthropists here tend to fight shy of publicly declaring their gifts to good causes. Out of this sum I would estimate that tens rather than hundreds of millions of pounds have found their way to medical research although it is difficult to trace exact sums.
So, the promissory note of an unprecedented cash injection to medical research at a time of world economic crisis and massive cuts in public expenditure would seem like manna from heaven. But the move has inevitably sparked a debate in the media and elsewhere about the pros and cons. Ian Wylie’s piece in the FT today is worth looking at.
In my own instance it has led to a self-admission that I know less about how these future philanthropists and their operations work than I perhaps should. So I offer up the questions I will be seeking answers to, rather than proffer a rounded critique.
- Will money and activity on this scale have a distorting effect on what is funded and what is not? How best might it be used?
- Is there a willingness to use such donations to leverage Government and other investment (it would seem so, according to the FT piece)?
- Given the nature of entrepeneurs will they see collaboration and partnership with others as a help or hindrance?
- How transparent will they be, and what systems will they have in place to ensure that they are funding science of the highest quality?
In the UK medical research charities have worked hard to ensure public trust and confidence in what they do and how they do it, by allocating money using peer review and often involving patients and the public in the scrutiny of such decisions. This approach is not embedded in either the culture of other countries nor in the world of private philanthropy. Yet.
So, rather than let ourselves be readily seduced by new-found riches or indeed kick it into touch, we all need to know a lot more about the ‘Giving Pledge’ and how its supporters intend to work and learn with us in the future.