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A Deeper Commitment: At Gathering of Philanthropists, Personal Involvement is the Message

By Tom Watson on July 12, 2007No Comment

At Gathering of Philanthropists, Personal Involvement is the Mes

A Deeper Commitment:
At Gathering of Philanthropists, Personal Involvement is the Message
By Tom Watson, 7/12/07

When it comes to changing the world, you don’t need to know everything to begin to make a difference. That was the message of several major philanthropists this weekend at the Greenbrier, where the Wealth & Giving Forum convened prominent families, experts in the field of water and poverty alleviation, and other leaders in an atmosphere that encouraged open discussion of philanthropy and its place in the world.

“You know, I was a Depression baby and somehow you get that drive, chasing the American dream,” Kenneth Behring told the attendees in the open plenary. “I was at the top of the mountain but it was bare. And I learned that there has to be more to life than possessions.”

Behring is among the nation’s richest men, a self-made entrepreneur who built a substantial fortune in real estate, automobiles and sports franchises. But he has made philanthropy his life’s passion over the last decade creating a charity to provide wheelchairs for the poorest of the poor, and more recently, as the catalyst behind WaterLeaders, a foundation dedicated to creating a “Safe Water Generation” by providing comprehensive and sustainable water solutions. His advice to other wealthy families was both simple and powerful and it set the tone for the gathering:

“Look, it’s more than money. You have to get involved, you have to go there and see what’s happening with your money. You have to get your hands dirty.”

And that’s the whole point of the Wealth & Giving Forum, created in 2003 by Greensboro, North Carolina philanthropist Leonard Kaplan: to increase giving and hands-on commitment by those who have done well in life. The founder spoke on Sunday about the gathering’s impact:

“This is something that seems to produce good feelings both spiritual and intellectual feelings. When you combine those two things, you reach a whole other plateau.”

Visitors have been visiting this scenic corner of West Virginia since 1778 to “take the waters” at White Sulphur Springs. This weekend, the philanthropists gathered at the Greenbrier resort also had water on their minds, but not in the therapeutic sense. They explored water’s significance in the developing world, its power and threat domestically, its role in worldwide conflict, and how philanthropy and social ventures can provide cleaner water for a world that needs it.

A deep and involved line-up of speakers tackled a range of topics at this invitation-only meeting, which allows philanthropic families to discuss issues like clean water in an intimate, private setting. [Note: Many of the sessions are closed, but I was granted permission to cover the panel discussions and major presentations. The Wealth & Giving Forum is a partner of Changing Our World, Inc., the parent company of onPhilanthropy].

The Wealth & Giving Forum was founded to promote greater generosity among individuals and families of significant means and to make more resources available for good causes. Through its semi-annual gatherings, regional and topical programs, and publications, the Forum provides a “private meeting ground for individuals and families to reflect with their peers on how best to allocate their wealth.”

The weekend’s moderator and genial session host, veteran political analyst Jeff Greenfield of CBS News, may well have captured the feelings of those of us who do not have millions to invest in fighting poverty:

“Many of you who come here are people of great means, and you are used to envy. It’s understandable. But for me, it’s not about material stuff. .. The envy I have is for what you’re able to do.”

A lot of numbers made the rounds at the Greenbrier last weekend: the many millions who live on a dollar or day a less, the many thousands still displaced by Hurricane Katrina and a dysfunctional disaster response almost three years later, the billions that are truly needed to change the world.

But amidst the population figures and spreadsheet columns, another factor clearly stood out – personal passion and commitment to change.

From environmentalist and anti-pollution legal warrior Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to former WTO chief and globalist Mike Moore, the tales of almost gut-level decisions to go beyond check-writing and filling board seats brought an emotional factor to the conference that, I believe, left those who participated with a desire to do more with their fortunes.

And one key number bears that out. The gathering focused on issues surrounding water – from disease and poverty to environmental and security concerns – and participating families were asked a number of questions during a polling session about their attitudes toward philanthropy. Just half-way through the conference, they were asked whether they’d be more likely to give their resources to water-related issues; 80% answered affirmatively.

“For many of the families, I think it did open up new possibilities about what they can accomplish with their philanthropy and that’s the most important thing,” said Glen Macdonald, president of the Wealth & Giving Forum. “From my conversations, I know that some probably had the idea that with all the really big players in philanthropy that ‘my contribution wouldn’t make a difference.’ And they discovered that’s completely wrong.”

The difference-maker, Macdonald said, was the degree of personal engagement on display, both in the public sessions and in the private, small-group meetings of family foundation members. Kennedy, for one, began the conference with a wall-shaker of a speech, which left the Greenbrier’s crystal chandeliers shivering and the participants on their feet in applause (no matter their personal political affiliation).

Kennedy talked about the “miraculous resurrection of the Hudson,” and described the expansion of the Waterkeeper movement from its humble, blue-collar beginnings among fisherman in the 1960’s to a force of 160 Riverkeeper patrol boats on every major waterway in the U.S. and a program to sue polluters across North America.

He insisted that the movement isn’t about saving wildlife for its own sake: “We’re protecting the environment for our own sake, for the communities we create for our children.” He said that in his 24 years as a full-time ecological activist, he learned that the movement has to be non-partisan to succeed, that “there are no Republican or Democratic children.” And he lamented that the “worst thing to happen to environmentalism is for it to become the province of one political party.”

But Kennedy didn’t stop to apologize for what came next: a full-bore siege on the environmental policies of the Bush Administration. He called it “the worst administration in history, with a radical agenda” in environmental terms, and accused President Bush of “appointing polluters to agencies protecting our environment.” And he said that the system is broken, that corporations have tilted our American version of democracy in their favor.

“The big polluters and their indentured servants in the government are not just destroying the environment, they’re permanently impoverishing these communities….There is nothing radical abut the idea of clean air and clean water.”

Next target: the media. With Jeff Greenfield, who worked as a speech writer for his father, sitting stage right, Kennedy stated plainly (and to strong applause): “We have been let down by a negligent and indolent press.”

On the gathering’s final morning, we heard from Mike Moore, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and outspoken Director-General of the World Trade Organisation. He brought a global view of American philanthropy – and a progressive optimism – that perfectly balanced Kennedy’s stark and dramatic portrait of current affairs.

“We are in the most sustained period of global growth in the history of the species,” said Moore. “I do admire that part of America where serious business people dig deep” into issues like water and poverty.

Moore said that although the problems of the world are legion, they are not insurmountable. He celebrated improvements over the past half century, including huge jumps in the infant mortality rate and human life expectancy. And he said that government should be involved at all levels in improving people’s lives.

“The word globalization has been demonized it’s a process, not a policy, and it has been going on forever,” he said. “Governments mean more than ever and it’s about good governments, effective governments.”

Like Kennedy, he took aim at subsidies for private business – “The United States has a $20 per week subsidy for every cow. And we thought only the Hindus kept cattle sacred!” – and said that in his view, efforts to preserve and improve ecological conditions were intimately tied to issues like poverty and disease. “The enemy of the environment is the poor. The poorest cities are the dirtiest….Efficiency is another word for conservation.”

Moore said that information technology has played a major role in spurring movements to change the world.

“The genius of it all is the transparency created by information. I read 1984 like everyone else. We all thought it would be Big Brother watching us. Wrong again! We’re watching big brother.”

Kennedy and Moore brought an involved, almost professional level of passion to the table, but other speakers like Jean Case and Ken Behring – and some college students from North Carolina – showed participating families how to “walk the talk” – describing how they and their families put personal fortunes to work for large causes.

A group of students from three North Carolina colleges took the stage the first day, after an introduction from Jeff Flug, the CEO and Executive Director of Millennium Promise Alliance, who traded in his pinstripes and bonus pool at JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs for development work.

Lennon Flowers, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, spoke to what is generally written about her generation and its attitude toward material gain.

“The reputation of my generation is one of apathy, that we’re too numb behind our iPods to care about what’s going on in the world. I think there’s a lot of passion out there, but passion alone isn’t what’s valued.”

UNC, Duke, and Bennett College have joined together to sponsor a Millennium Village, part of an effort to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals by 2015. The students are raising $1.5 million (including matching pledges) in the first student-led sponsorship of a Millennium Village – essentially, the adoption of a small village in the developing world – as “a tangible way of demonstrating students’ commitment to the international effort to eradicate extreme poverty.” The group’s pledge shows a different side of a young, activist generation: 

“We the students of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and Bennett College, as members of a greater global community, feel a responsibility to dedicate our energy and resources to empower those in extreme poverty, and to demonstrate the role of universities as catalysts for global change.

Furthermore, we see this as a unique opportunity to unite students, faculty, and community members to engage in an academic dialogue to critically assess and improve sustainable development strategies such as the Millennium Village model.”

Emily Glenn, senior at Duke University, and Sharrelle Barber, a Bennett grad and UNC graduate student, also spoke passionately about the cause that united students at three very diverse campuses. Said Glenn:

“We don’t see ourselves as a group, it’s a movement. We all agree that it’s fundamentally unacceptable that people die from diseases that are easily preventable.”

Jean and Steve Case (the founder of America Online) created the Case Foundation a decade ago “to reflect their family’s heartfelt commitment to finding lasting solutions to complex social challenges.” Jean Case described the Foundation’s involvement in the PlayPumps movement to bring clean drinking water to African communities. But she also talked about being open to collaboration with other philanthropists, with NGOs, with governments, with inventors and technologists, and with investors – making the point that PlayPumps isn’t the “only solution” to the African water crisis. “We are huge fans of any intervention that brings clean water to people.”

That echoed Behring’s remarks a day earlier. “There is no one system that works for water,” said Behring.  After taking a few lumps in his early efforts, “I decided this was much bigger than I was – that it was not just delivery, it was many things. That it’s not just one technology, it’s all the technologies.”

He added that making mistakes is part of the process – but so is just getting started: “Go there. Let them hold your hand. Then you’ll know what giving is all about.”

Or as Jeff Greenfield said in kicking off the conference – employing the ultimate irony in quoting Karl Marx to a group of self-made capitalists:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

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