Food for thought from Bill Gates

Joyce Culver for the 92nd Street Y

Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y really has a phenomenal philanthropy thing going with its Business of Giving lecture series, led by the Economist’s Matthew Bishop.

Bishop, who recently wrote "Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World," has interviewed some of the country’s top givers, both Jewish and non Jewish, including Bill Clinton and Eli Broad.

On Wednesday, the Y featured the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, who over the past year has essentially pulled himself away from the business side of Microsoft to work full time at the $30 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

No, Gates is not involved in Jewish philanthropy. But listening to how he conducts his own giving is certainly valuable.

When he and his wife decided that they were going to start what has become the world’s largest private foundation, they looked for the area of greatest need for which a solution would have the greatest effect.

The Gateses settled on disease in Africa — primarily, malaria — and to a smaller degree education here in the United States.

Bishop asked Gates several interesting questions, and almost all of Gates’ answers provided interesting food for thought for the Judeo-centeric philanthropist.

He pressed Gates on whether success was harder in the philanthropic world, given that there is no Larry Ellison or Steven Jobs to competitively push him forward in the race to cure malaria (especially given that the world’s second-wealthiest man, Warren Buffet, has already decided to give all of his philanthropic dollars to the Gates Foundation and eschewed starting his own).

In response, Gates said that in this case the enemy is not another person; it’s malaria. And the goal is clear: to wipe it out.

What does this have to do with Jewish philanthropy? It used to be that the Jewish community’s main philanthropic goal was caring for the poor and the founding, settling and protection of the nascent State of Israel. These days, however, plenty of Jewish philanthropic dollars go to identity-building projects — Birthright, day schools, camps, Jewish service, learning.

So what is the enemy in the battle for Jewish identity? If it’s apathy, can Jewish organizations and programming really make a dent? How will we know when victory is achieved?

Bishop also asked Gates about the role he could play in pushing governments to act.

In the long run, Gates said, his goal is to have the countries in which he is trying to eradicate infectious and curable diseases become self sustaining. So he, the philanthropist, pays for development of vaccines, cures and education methods, then ultimately the government should step in.

Does this model of philanthropy-government partnership have something to offer the Jewish community? Yes, there are plenty of Jewish organizations that receive government funding for feeding the poor, helping the homeless and the jobless here and abroad. But by and large the challenges in terms of Jewish identity-building are not ones in which federal, state and local governments have played a role.

Gates stressed the importance of optimism, saying it is the optimistic — as well as persistent and wealthy — individual philanthropist who can play the role of the catalyst. Such a person, he said, would likely emerge from a wider wave of optimism.

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