Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Where Should Buffet and Gates Invest? would you change the world? The Social Edge forum has been debating whether Warren Buffet's contribution is a good thing (or at least trying... sometimes these forums get SO off topic!).

The basic question, not just for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ("B&MGF"), but for all interested in large scale social change (and complaining about there not being enough money) is: Given all the world's challenges, where will you invest your time-talent-treasure to make a change?

We all have different issues and passions and there are lots of places where we can make an impact. It is interesting that so many seem to come to this discussion with a "scarcity" mindset, since we are basically talking about human energy and passion. Isn't this a limitless and renewable resource? Money follows great ideas + effective people. I think there may be more money than there are good ideas on how to spend it responsibly. The non-profit and government sector's track record is, to say the least, not spectacular. So where should Gates/Buffet spend their billions? Well, most likely it will be trying to support great ideas and effective people. But where should they start (and where should each of us start)?

To take a popular example these days, what with Al Gore's movie and all... if you assume that climate change will contribute to "catastrophic" events and you have a $60 billion foundation, what do you do? Subsidize hybrids in China, buy carbon credits, promote reforestation or more active carbon sequestration? What is the probablility of success and scale of impact vs. the cost?

While I think climate change is an important challenge, it is a challenge on the minds of those of us lucky enough to live in places like U.S. and Europe (and incidently, we have massive carbon footprints compared to those in the developing world). Should B&MGF spend their money trying to convince us to behave better, or should they focus on immunizing the poor and developing new vaccines against diseases like malaria (which has a huge impact on keeping the poor in poor health throughout the tropics)? or clean water supplies? or alternative energy (as was suggested by a recent interview with Gates in Newsweek), or broadening their educational inititives? As someone I respect often says "it is all good work". If they choose one of these areas, why are so many ready to say it is the "wrong" choice?

To date, B&MGF has spent more time on infectious disease and education (mostly in the U.S.) and they are learning, building networks and making progress- in short, becoming effective. Should they add an additional focus, as suggested in these discussion board threads... agriculture, poverty alleviation, climate change? Or should they redouble their efforts? This decision may well rest on their analysis of whether there are enough great ideas and effective people in their existing areas of focus. And perhaps, this new money will help attract more talent to these sectors.

A final thought- while Bill and Warren have billions, their overall impact pales in comparison to the work of the millions of people that are out there contributing their more limited financial resources, hearts and minds, to whatever cause they support. Let's all keep up the good work and see how Mr. Buffet's gift impacts what we are doing.

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