ASK Bill Gates if his philanthropy is driven by faith, and he will tell you, unequivocally: “I am not religiously motivated.” As the co-founder of Microsoft, currently top of the Forbes list of the world’s richest people, and someone who has given away tens of billions of dollars to fight poverty and disease, he has put his faith in the power of technology, money, and himself, and the talented people that he employs, to move mountains.
Yet he is quick to acknowledge being heavily influenced in his giving by his parents, who were involved in their local Congregational church and community charities. His wife, and partner in giving, Melinda, is a devout Roman Catholic, albeit a rebellious one: her decision a few years ago publicly to challenge RC teaching on contraception and abortion, after seeing the harm it had done — especially to women — in some of the world’s poorest places, seems to have given extra energy and purpose to her philanthropy.
A SIMILAR picture emerges when you read the letters written by signatories to the Giving Pledge, created by the Gateses with their fellow philanthropic tycoon, Warren Buffett. In these public promises to give away at least half their wealth by the time they die, these billionaire philanthropists rarely attribute their giving to God, or religious faith.
Rare exceptions are Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa, a Zimbabwean couple who made their fortune in mobile telecoms. Their giving, they write, is to fulfil the teaching of St Paul that “I have shown you in every way, by labouring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Most of the letters refer, instead, to a sense of gratitude for how wealthy their authors have become; a desire to give back; recognition that they have far more money than they could ever need, and that you can’t take it with you when you go; and a belief in their ability to make the world a better place. As the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson writes: “‘Stuff’ really is not what brings happiness. Family, friends, good health and the satisfaction that comes from making a positive difference are what really matters.”
For the supermarket tycoon David Sainsbury and his family, “We do not believe that spending any more money on ourselves or our family would add anything to our happiness. However, using it to support social progress we have found deeply fulfilling.”
Of course, what some of these super-rich claim is their motivation may not be the real driver of their philanthropy. Arguably, the Gateses and Mr Buffett have set the new gold standard for what is expected of the modern billionaire by his or her peers. A big mansion or big yacht does not get you a seat at the head table; a big gift might.
No doubt, some of the billionaire signatories of the Giving Pledge do not give a damn about the rest of humanity, but care very much about being part of the Buffett and Gates club. And significant philanthropy is still a minority pursuit among the world’s super-rich, plenty of whom seem to take Donald Trump’s lipstick-on-a-pig approach to charity (give as much as is needed to polish the personal brand, and not a penny more). There are 1753 people on the Forbes billionaires list, and — while there are some mega-philanthropists who have chosen not to sign it — only 158 have taken the Giving Pledge.
IF THERE is a Bible for today’s generation of mega-donors, it is more likely to be The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie than the real thing.
Carnegie, an American steel tycoon from a long line of Ulster Protestants, was strongly influenced by social Darwinism; his tome, written in 1889, argued that it was the responsibility of society’s economic winners to use those same talents that had enabled them to succeed to help the less successful. Giving should be done while the donor was still alive, and should use up the giver’s fortune during his or her life. Or, as he put it, “the man who dies rich dies thus disgraced.”
Like many of today’s wealthy donors, he believed that the talents of the wealthy were desperately needed to improve the impact of giving, regarding most charity as utterly ineffective, “unwisely spent”, and “indiscriminate”.
Above everything else, the defining feature of today’s leading philanthropists — in terms of how they describe themselves — is the desire to be effective in their philanthropy (rather than believing that giving is inherently good for its own sake), combined with a belief that the talents that helped them to make money will work equally well when giving it away.
WHILE earlier generations of philanthropists often turned to philanthropy out of guilt at how they had become rich, today’s typically are proud of their business life, and see giving as a natural parallel to it: all part of a holistic approach to life. They are practitioners of what I call “philanthrocapitalism”.
In a book of that name, summing up our conclusions from dozens of interviews, Michael Green and I wrote that “as these philanthrocapitalists talk about what motivates them, the same themes come up time and again: they have the resources; the problem needs to be fixed; they know how to fix problems, for that is what they do all day in business.”
This is reflected in talk about large-scale solutions and an obsession with measuring outcomes, which is, on balance, a good thing. Less positively, it can also lead to misplaced arrogance in dealing with others who are engaged on similar causes, and to unhelpful culture clashes. After all, it is often far harder to translate business skills to the task of improving the world than many philanthrocapitalists believe.
There have been some spectacular failures. In 2010, the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $100 million in 2010 to improve schools in the troubled city of Newark, New Jersey, but the ways in which the money was used turned out to generate no noticeable benefit. Still, as they say in Silicon Valley, failure is a great learning experience.
The couple, who have signed the Giving Pledge, seem to have thought hard about what happened to their money in Newark, as they set about putting the rest of their $45-billion fortune to work on good causes.
WHATEVER part personal religious faith plays in the philanthropy of individuals, there are some strong grounds for thinking that it has been shaped by growing up in cultures built on religious teachings, just as Mr Gates was influenced by growing up in a churchgoing family with strong charitable habits.
Among academics who study philanthropy, there are some lively debates about whether the dominant Protestant traditions of the United States and Britain, with their greater individualism, are especially supportive of philanthropy by the successful, in contrast with Catholicism-dominated Continental Europe and Latin America. There is also a strong culture of philanthropy in the Jewish community.
The main reason that US giving is so much higher (around two per cent of GDP) than other countries (where it is typically less than one per cent) is that so much money is donated to churches and temples. Strikingly, some of the most prominent Jewish and Christian philanthropists who directly link their giving to their religious faith focus on building up what they view as the “classic” interpretations of their religion. A great deal of American Jewish philanthropy, for example, has sought to strengthen Orthodox Jewry in Israel.
Likewise, some American Evangelical philanthropists are supporting churches in Africa that take a hard line on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, in the hope of achieving better results in the culture wars over there than they have had at home.
THE most positive aspect of this current boom in philanthropy, for me, is that it is revealing a desire for a purpose deeper than making money. Mr Gates says that he has never been so happy or fulfilled. This is what theories such as Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” would predict: as the basics of life (food, shelter, etc.) are taken care of, we turn our attention to the more meaningful stuff.
Recent evidence from neuroscience shows that we are physically hard-wired to find fulfilment in giving, which can generate the same emotionally positive chemical reactions in our brains as dancing or sex. These experiences are not confined to the rich, but are available to everyone — at least to some extent.
That, I think, explains the enthusiasm for the #givingtuesday campaign, a global celebration of giving which I and others co-founded in 2013 with Henry Timms of 92Y in New York (he is the English, Anglican director of the leading Jewish community centre in the US). Millions of people are rediscovering the joy of giving, and love having an opportunity to celebrate and share this discovery with their friends and families on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media. In doing so, they are injecting positivity and purpose into what can seem a negative, hate-filled cyberspace.
Yet, interestingly, — like the Giving Pledge — #givingtuesday is flying in the face of another religious tradition in philanthropy: that giving is best done secretly. Such is the selfishness of our age that talking about your giving is no longer a way to show off how wealthy you are, but, instead, a way to inspire others — by sharing your passion, and showing how giving really can make a difference.
Matthew Bishop is a senior editor at The Economist Group, co-author of Philanthrocapitalism: How giving can save the world (Bloomsbury, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)), and a cofounder of the #givingtuesday campaign.