Benevolent billionaires? Or good PR?

Are the pledges from the rich sincere acts of generosity, asks Jerry Schuitema…

SWELLENDAM – It is easy to be sceptical when someone donates half of his wealth to charity and can still buy a smallish country with the other half.

So sceptics can perhaps be forgiven when they scoff at the news that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have persuaded some 40 billionaires to donate their half share to charity, amounting to some $150bn. But it does become more difficult to scoff at Gates when he pledges all of his wealth rather than leave it to his children to avoid them being members of the “lucky sperm club”.

If that is not teaching prudence to your children then I don’t know what is.

Although philanthropists exist across the world, charity is a great American tradition. The country has hundreds of foundations and institutes bearing the names of entrepreneurs such as Rockefeller, Kellogg, Ford, Carnegie, Johnson, and Packard. Indeed, “giving” makes up nearly 2% of US GDP.

I find it easier than most to be jaundiced, albeit with a very shallow shade of yellow, about gifts and donations of the “corporate” kind.

One could say it is easy for these institutions to “give” when the amounts involved hardly touch the corporate purse, can be written off against tax, and blur the dividing line between marketing and philanthropy. One could also ask whether this money would not be better spent if it meant some direct benefit to customers, or some social gesture involving staff in the allocation. But personal gifts of the kind we are witnessing are in a very different category.

I just find it a bit sad that many still see philanthropy as proof of the generosity of great entrepreneurs. For me it is only a relatively small reflection of their generous spirit, as laudable and as magnificent as it may be in its own right.

What about all the other things most of them have done during their lifetime: provide jobs and pay company taxes and above all, the products and services that they brought to the world that made a meaningful difference to our lives?

We have somehow managed to trash the making of their fortunes as the “less attractive side”, driven by greed and profit, rather than a sincere desire to make a difference to humanity. Of course there are many who made their fortunes by being singularly focussed on financial reward. But there are just as many who were not, and perhaps have been more successful because of it.

In my workshops I would ask those present to put names to the following quotes:

“I will build a car for the great multitude.”

“I will make the computer accessible to the masses.”

“I will protect the consumer against exploitation.”

“I will stay in prison until my people are free.”

They were easily identified as Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Raymond Ackerman and Nelson Mandela.

The group would also readily agree that they were all statements of giving rather than getting, reflecting generosity rather than selfishness in what drove them. Then I would set off a heated debate by asking whether the statements were sincere or not. Apart from Mandela, most questioned the sincerity of the others.

Do we know these people intimately? Do we know them so well that we can accuse them of lying? We make assumptions so easily, most of them baseless and forgetting that assumptions lie at the root of all conflict. But, as I would tell my groups: They said it! They did it! How much more successful would they have been if they were indeed sincere!

But they were sincere. And I would argue that without that sincerity, without that passion and without a desire to add value to people’s lives they would most probably have failed. What do these people have that other’s lack?

It does seem to have a mystical quality about which Time magazine once wrote: “like a code writer and his code (they) stand outside the system to which they are so crucial.”

Volumes have been written about the key ingredient for success of these people and others … from Covey’s “Seven Habits” to a whole plethora of self help and motivational multi-media paraphernalia. Indeed, the pursuit of happiness and success has become a huge industry in its own right.

Perhaps it is less elusive than we think. Even if we dispute the benevolent intent of some of the great entrepreneurs, we can simply select our own role model or person that we admire and question why we hold them in such high regard. Invariably, most of us grant them hero status on the basis of what they have “given” in life; not what they have “received” or own, or what their bank balance looks like. The capacity to care, to have an outward view exists in most of us. It is a basic natural instinct that existed in prehistoric times.

Yet, over a number of years, we seem to have conditioned ourselves into applying a litmus test that destroys every opportunity for greatness. I call it the “WIIFM test” – one that insists that we do not act before answering the question “what’s in it for me?” We all have valid reasons for withholding acts of unconditional giving. At the very least, we should become aware of its self-destructive capacity.

I must emphasise that the definition of “giving” in this case is not about money or handouts. It’s about giving the best of yourself, your time and effort, in all circumstances that present the opportunity. It is about enabling others; not about making them dependent on you. Ultimate empowerment is to enable other’s to add value to people’s lives.

So it is to be hoped that while many will always be dependent on others and have no capacity for self-help, our charitable billionaires will at least try and ensure that their donations are enabling the recipients according to Abraham Lincoln’s tenet: “You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they should be doing for themselves”.

There is a simple illustration that makes the point.

We seldom, if ever know with certainty what we are going to “get” out of any situation. We know with greater certainty what we are capable of giving or contributing to that situation. If we always restrict our giving to the extent that we know what we are going to get, we automatically restrict our giving to that limit. We most likely end up with less than we expected. So the next time we give less, and the next time less again, until we end up as non-contributing balls of metabolising tissue always dependent on others. The difference between the willingness to give and the certainty of a reward is called “risk”. Risk is the essential ingredient of all acts of entrepreneurship. Risk is the source of surpluses and prosperity.

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” – T S Eliot.

In this context, and not denying the crucial role of profits and reluctant to beat my favourite drum again, I have never understood the obsession with the profit motive as the best engine for prosperity. It epitomises the WIIFM approach, especially when taken to extremes like the “reverse income statement.” I will never oppose people or companies their right to chase profits.

I ask simply: “Is this the best of you?” Is the real essence of a company and its contribution to mankind captured by the income statement and because of it? Surely there must be more!

Perhaps Henry Ford said it best: “The man who will use his skill and constructive imagination to see how much he can give for a dollar, instead of how much he can get for a dollar, is bound to succeed.”

As we saw in the give/get circle, the size of risk and entrepreneurship is a function of the size of giving. But this is about behaviour, not a state of being. An “entrepreneur” is not a particular kind of human being, but rather one who acts in a particular way. When someone is given the title “entrepreneur” it may not be entirely appropriate.

We are all capable of entrepreneurial behaviour and can respond to life in an entrepreneurial way. Then, and only then, will we become entrepreneurs, whether in our personal lives, jobs, or own businesses.

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