The Power of Giving: Philanthropy’s Impact on American Life
National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.
December 1, 2015
Thank you. It’s great to be here today.
I’m a big fan of the Smithsonian. When I was young, my family spent a summer in Washington and I was a frequent visitor to many of the museums.
My favorite was the old National Air Museum, before they built the Air and Space Museum. Like most kids, I was fascinated by the magic of flight and John Glenn’s orbit of the earth. Back then, a manned moon landing was still the stuff of dreams. Today, the Air and Space Museum has an exhibit inviting us to imagine what it will be like to travel to Mars.
That’s the great thing about the Smithsonian. It’s not only about the past. It’s also very much about the future. We go to the Smithsonian to see not just where we’ve been, but also where we’re going.
That’s why we’re so supportive of the museum’s philanthropy initiative. It will help us understand how philanthropy has shaped our nation and how it can influence our future.
I’m also excited to be here today because I’m an optimist about the power of philanthropy to reduce inequity. Philanthropy helps meet all kinds of needs in society – from museums to symphony halls. But it plays a special role in reducing inequity and human suffering.
When Melinda and I made our first trip to Africa in 1993, it was really our first encounter with deep poverty and it had a profound impact on us.
Not long after we returned, we read that millions of poor children in Africa were dying every year from diseases that, essentially, nobody dies from in this country: measles, malaria, hepatitis B, yellow fever.
Rotavirus, a disease we had never even heard of, was killing half a million kids each year – virtually none of them in the U.S.
We assumed that if millions of children were dying, there would be a big worldwide effort to save them. We were wrong.
What we learned is that the private sector does a fantastic job developing advances in medicine, science, and technology that people in wealthy countries can pay for. But it under-invests in innovation for poor countries because the likelihood of making a decent return is so low.
Most governments are risk averse, too, and in poor countries they don’t have enough money to invest in R&D, or even to get existing drugs and vaccines to people.
So we worked with other donors, developing countries, and vaccine manufacturers on a plan to ensure that children in poor countries get the same vaccines as children in rich countries.
And we helped set up a new system to make market forces work in favor of the poor – by guaranteeing purchases so drug companies don’t have to take a big risk. As the value of this approach became clearer, governments put in more money and some drug companies began to factor poor-world diseases into their business model.
This kind of catalytic approach to philanthropy has immunized more than 500 million children and prevented more than 7 million deaths. And similar approaches have cut deaths from malaria by more than 50%, saved 37 million lives in the battle against tuberculosis, and ensured that AIDs is no longer a certain death sentence.
As you’ve heard throughout the morning, there is much to celebrate in terms of the impact philanthropy has had and is having today. And so much more is possible.
When I think about the future of philanthropy, three things come to mind.
The first is the globalization of philanthropy. This is an incredibly generous country and it’s important that we do everything we can to ensure the greatest impact.
But giving effectively isn’t easy. Figuring out what interventions will make the biggest difference, scaling solutions that work, measuring progress and adjusting strategies – it’s hard to do.
So a portion of our work at the foundation is focused on how to address the barriers to engaging in effective philanthropy – everything from policy and infrastructure to helping other donors find ways to achieve their desired impact.
One example of that effort is the Giving Pledge, which Melinda, Warren, and I got started about five years ago. We wanted to see what might help inspire and support others who had been very fortunate and wanted to become more effective philanthropists.
We had a number of conversations with people like David Rockefeller Sr. about the best approach. We came up with a simple but powerful idea: ask people to make a commitment to give away the majority of their wealth.
The idea was well received and quite a few people enthusiastically signed on. It has created a network for connecting, learning, and exploring ways to have the biggest possible impact.
It’s been fun to watch the evolution of the Giving Pledge – there are now 140 of us from 14 different countries who have taken the pledge.
And it’s great to see how people are taking action – really supporting and pushing each other to become more focused and more effective in their giving. Melinda and I love being part of the group – sharing what we’ve learned and learning from everyone else.
It’s terrific that the Smithsonian is housing the pledge letters as part of this exhibit – they are incredibly inspiring.
This growing interest in philanthropy isn’t only in the US. I recently visited China, where philanthropy is still a fraction of what it is in the US. But China’s remarkable growth has created new wealth for a generation of entrepreneurs—wealth that can benefit people in China and around the world.
I’m supporting the country’s first philanthropy institute, to encourage a new generation of philanthropists and giving throughout China.
Later this week, I’ll be in Bangalore to participate in the India Philanthropy Initiative. It’s a similar effort to the Giving Pledge -- to encourage those who have benefited from India’s progress to think about the most effective ways to give back.
Many of the entrepreneurs in India and China have created their own businesses by combining ingenuity with innovative ideas. By applying those same talents to philanthropy, they can change the world.
It’s exciting to see how serious and energetic people are about philanthropy, and this truly applies at all levels of giving.
The second thing that promises to accelerate philanthropy’s impact are new ways to learn about giving and get involved.
People are inherently generous and they want to make a difference. It’s just not always clear how to do that – how to find good information about philanthropic organizations or how to get involved in causes you care about.
Even among higher income individuals, only one in five think their giving is “highly effective.” And although most donors in the US say they care about the performance of nonprofits, only a third research the gifts they give.
We need new ways for people to get informed – not just about philanthropy in their community but also about how they can help solve problems in places like Africa and Southeast Asia.
Just think about the opportunity to evolve workplace giving. I grew up in a family that believed deeply in United Way and the power of community engagement. United Way is a fantastic organization and we’re still a strong supporter. But imagine if you had access to a sophisticated workplace giving portal – much like what’s available today with online retirement and savings tools.
People could get actionable data about a range of giving choices. You could get greater insight into the impact of your giving. And find opportunities to get involved with causes you’re passionate about.
Which brings me to the third point about the future of philanthropy: technology is enabling exciting new tools for giving.
We’re seeing large social media companies experimenting with ways to encourage people to get engaged.
During the Ebola crisis, Facebook gave its 1.3 billion users an option to donate to three reputable nonprofits doing great work to stop Ebola. And Google launched a matching gift campaign that provided $2 for every dollar people donated to relief organizations fighting Ebola.
Online innovators like Giving Tuesday, Kiva, and DonorsChoose.org are connecting people with what’s going on around them and making it easy to get involved.
We’re still in the early days of all this and more creativity is needed, but I’m optimistic that we will continue to see exciting new ways for people to give.
Looking at the impact philanthropy has already had, if everyone gets involved we can do something that’s never been done before. We can ensure that children everywhere not only survive, but thrive. We can eradicate infectious diseases, find a cure or vaccine for HIV, and protect the planet.
There is no magic formula for prioritizing the world’s problems. Whatever cause you pick, philanthropy is a very personal decision.
Melinda and I often say that the work we’re doing today is the most fulfilling thing we’ve ever done.
I hope everyone here will take some time to share with others what you get out of giving. If you can inspire someone to give money, that’s great. If you can inspire them to spend a few hours at a food bank, or learning about an issue they’re passionate about, that’s just as important.
This can be the best legacy of the initiative we’re launching today – to inspire people to think about what they can do, large or small, to make the world a better place.