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Wealth & Giving Forum: Personal Passion Leverages Funding

By Tom Watson on July 12, 2007One Comment

A lot of numbers made the rounds at the Wealth & Giving Forum’s gathering for philanthropic families 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 – and among a group of prominent philanthropists – 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 during a polling session a number of questions 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% said yes.

"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 1960s to a force of 160 riverkeeper patrol boats on everywhere 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 protectig the environment for our own’s sake, for the commuties 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 enviroment, 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 on 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 showed participating families how to "walk the talk" – describing how they and their families put personal fortunes to work for large causes.

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, who founded WaterLeaders, a foundation dedicated to creating a “Safe
Water Generation” by providing comprehensive and sustainable water
solutions. After taking a few lumps in his early efforts, "I decided this was much bigger than I was – that it was no 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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