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Wealth & Giving Forum Message: Get Your Hands Dirty

By Tom Watson on July 10, 2007No Comment

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 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’ve 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 an whole other plateau.”

Speaker after speaker this weekend sounded the call of personal involvement in causes – from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s passionate attack on systemic pollution of waterways to Jean Case’s description of her personal journey in providing cleaner water to villages in Africa. I’ll have more specific reports on the sessions over the next several days – including discussion of the ongoing post-Katrina humanitarian crisis in New Orleans, the impact of water concerns on international security, and several stories of life-changing philanthropic commitments. And we’ll explore a few of the larger themes.

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.”

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