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A Negative Reaction to Bill Gates’ Generosity

July 1, 2006

This entry may make me seem like Chicken Little, but I am worried about the impact of Bill Gates announcing he is going to spend all of his time, as of next year, managing his charitable affairs. Actually, that is not what I’m concerned about. It is the gift of Warren Buffett to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of 31 Billion Dollars that I am reacting to. Actually, it is not the 31 billion dollars…it is the announcement.

I have been involved in charitable fund-raising in one way or another for about 26 years. This includes raising money for churches certainly, but also for organizations as far-flung as Sexual Abuse Awareness assocations to School Foundations. In that time, I have seen a curious trend that I really pray does not happen in America. When people give to a charity, they do it with two things in mind. First, they are cognizant of their place in society and the need for themselves, as individuals, to overcome fear and selfishness with money. From the child who gives a quarter to the Muscular Dystrophy can at the corner store, to the father who writes a check to the church, each one of them believes they are making a difference. If they thought their act was meaningless, they would not do it. Part of the mystique of giving is that generally we do not know what other people are donating. I think most of us are aware that people give much more than we do, but because we don’t know the specifics, it shelters us from the thought that we would have to give several thousand times more than we are giving to match the generosity and financial impact of a large patron. That ignorance allows us to treat our own giving as it should be treated; with the knowledge that we did the right thing for the right reason.

But here is what happens when large “public” gifts are made to charities. I was the fund-raising coordinator for a small charity many years ago. We struggled to raise $10,000 per year to keep our operations going. We had no full-time employees, just a few faithful volunteers. But we were well-known in that small town as a group that got things done. People did not give us much, but our donors were regular and committed. One year, a local entrepreneur was approached by a member of our committee about making a donation. For some reason, he gave $100,000. This instantly dwarfed every donation made in the six years we had been in operation. It was lauded and applauded in the local newspaper. It allowed us to hire a full-time Executive Director, who spent most of her time raising more funds. These funds then came in from larger donors and major corporations. That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But the other results were not so wonderful. We lost most of our smaller donors, who reasoned (perhaps correctly) that we no longer needed their money. They also stopped volunteering their time. Our all-volunteer organization had to hire other workers. In the end, when I resigned from it, most of the original members were gone because it was no longer serving the need it was originally created for. We could have kept the large donation more private and it would have helped us better in the long run.

This is almost always true in churches as well. If one very large donor comes along, giving gifts that overshadow the gifts of all the rest of the congregants, many people will stop giving. It is human nature to become awed by a large benevolent offering, no matter how well-intentioned and humble the giver might be. But it also makes our comparatively small gifts seem ordinary, plain and perhaps useless. Only the widow with her two coins might be brave enough to give in face of the onslaught of the Pharisees’ large public offerings.

If you combine the 31 Billion dollars of Buffett with the tens of billions of dollars in the Gates Foundation, you have a formidable charitable impact on our society. I hate to say this, but I predict that even though more money will go to society’s charities now, the average individual will begin to see that their giving become marginalized. At that tipping point, we may see very few people willing to give into the public trust. If that happens, then we will submerge ourselves as individuals further into the sea of selfishness. So, in essence, though I applaud the heart of Gates and Buffett, I think it would have been better for us all if their right hands had not known what their left hands were giving.

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