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Why Should Bill Gates Have All the Fun?: Stories to Spread the Joy of “Giving”

By Tom Watson on September 13, 2007No Comment

Why Should Bill Gates Have All the Fun?: Stories to Spread the Joy of “Giving.”
By Susan Carey Dempsey, 9/13/07

Giving by Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton has famously created an unprecedented role in his post-presidential years, of brokering and encouraging philanthropic initiatives that are historic in their scope and degree of innovation. Building on the boost that the Clinton Global Initiative has given to philanthropy, he’s now published a book that seeks to infect average citizens with the same joy of giving that’s become widely associated with industrial tycoons.

In CGI’s annual conferences, Clinton clearly takes great relish in using the commitments of mega-philanthropists to spur giving at higher levels in more innovative ways than ever. At the same time, he goes out of his way to point out that the small acts of individuals have a place in the fabric of a caring society, lest people feel that unless you’re a Bill Gates, you needn’t bother.

That message resounds in Clinton’s new book, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. He illustrates his point by recounting stories of individuals who decided to make a difference through personal involvement or charitable contributions. These range from the well-known, like Oseola McCarty, who put away enough money over a hard-working, simple lifetime as a laundress to create an endowment for African-American students at the University of Southern Mississippi, to families who’ve quietly created charitable organizations to help others as a memorial to a loved one.

To professionals working in philanthropy, much of the material will sound familiar, such as the story behind Heifer International, or Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti. Clinton draws out less well-known examples, though, such as a couple from New York, who were so taken aback by conditions in Zimbabwe when they went to Africa for a wedding, that they formed the US Africa Children’s Fellowship. [An interview follows this article.] Linking up with the Zimbabwe Organization of Rural Associations for Progress, they’ve built a successful program to provide schools with supplies ranging from sports equipment to sewing machines to school uniforms and books. Mark Grashow and Sheri Saltzberg made sure to incorporate into their program American schools, where the students become aware of how difficult it may be for their Zimbabwe counterparts to accomplish the simple tasks in a school day, from walking miles to school to getting enough to eat to being able to dress for school. Many, orphaned by AIDS, cannot attend school because the burden of raising younger family members has fallen to them. The American children take part in raising funds for the schools, and frequently write letters to the African students half a world away.

There’s a well-known trend, which some call the “celebrification” of philanthropy, to shine the spotlight on causes because of the presence of Hollywood stars and other larger-than life figures. Clinton uses this to advantage, sprinkling the pages with bold-faced names, yet the deeds he highlights are generally more substantial than the paparazzi-laced photo-ops that often masquerade as altruism. And when you’re Bill Clinton, you can keep the narrative lively with phrases like, “I said to Oprah,” and “Nelson Mandela and I closed the World AIDS Conference,” in addition to providing illustrative examples from Tiger Woods to The Edge and Bono, of people who’ve applied their celebrity to social impact.

His challenge to the reader is not only to raise funds or donate, but to become involved in advocacy for change. He cites advocacy organizations such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition or the Sierra Club, but also recounts actions taken by cities and states to respond to climate change and encourage green building, where he urges citizens to raise their voices.

He argues on behalf of organizing markets for philanthropic efforts, using the same strategies as businesses successfully employ. Just as the Clinton Foundation did in addressing the AIDS crisis by organizing markets to deliver medications to poor countries, individuals have been inspired to organize public goods markets in several areas. Bringing power and water to impoverished areas in Nigeria, enabling American hospitals to mentor counterparts in Africa, or increasing microcredit loans, all have been expanded and made more effective through better organized markets.

The book’s not preachy, and Clinton suggests that people who are not inclined to give may have legitimate reasons: “they don’t believe what they could do would make a difference…no one has ever asked them to do so.” In truth, of course, he’s largely preaching to the choir, for this book’s readers are likely to be people who are inclined to give but would perhaps like to see greater impact. In its chapters, there are countless examples of how philanthropy can be effective, the joy of giving can be infectious, and indeed, the energy and generosity of ordinary individuals can overcome the most formidable obstacles.   

Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World by Bill Clinton,
ISBN 978-0-307-26674-3
Alfred A. Knopf, September 2007

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