Philanthropy Makes A Big Comeback

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Philanthropy Makes A Big Comeback

After an intense decade or two of unprecedented — and amazingly fast — earning, the new generation of super-rich is fueling a growing “culture of giving.”

Premier among these philanthropists, of course, is Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, who have outdone almost everyone else in their efforts to eradicate disease in less developed nations. Their current effort is aimed at treating tuberculosis, which is the leading killer of people with AIDS and has grown by 20 percent in the last decade. TB killed almost two million people last year alone. The Gates Foundation is supporting efforts to find a faster, simpler treatment for the disease.

Highly targeted efforts like this are giving increased credibility to charitable work, and encouraging people with large amounts of money to find specific causes and aim their philanthropic efforts at them. This kind of “targeted giving” has largely replaced traditional giving to umbrella organizations like the Red Cross or a college.

This kind of sophisticated giving stems partly from the enormous growth of the upper echelons of the world’s wealthy, especially Americans. In 1996, as the Internet revolution was taking off, there were 423 billionaires in the world. Just 10 years later, there are 691, according to Forbes magazine, which compiles the best-known list of the world’s richest people each year.1 And, more than half of those billionaires are self-made.

These people, like Gates, became very rich, very fast. Many of them are trying to give back some of what they made in newer and more imaginative ways. Great new wealth, combined with a willingness to give, is creating unprecedented opportunities to solve some of the world’s major problems.

According to a recent report on this phenomenon, if only 5 to 10 percent of the super-rich engage in non-traditional philanthropy, the business of giving will be completely transformed in the next decade or two.

The likelihood of this scenario is indicated by the genuine explosion of philanthropy we’ve seen recently. In 2005, for instance, there were 800,000 non-profit organizations registered with the IRS. That’s twice the number than existed in 1990. Among these, six new “family foundations” are formed each day.

The media is encouraging the growth of this trend by putting the spotlight on those who give the most. BusinessWeek2 now publishes an annual list of high-scoring philanthropists. On the most recent list, Bill Gates was bumped into second place, with Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty taking the lead...

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