If I Had a Billion Dollars… (Part One)

7 10 2010

In the early 1990s, when my kids were young, they introduced me to a song called “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Canadian music group Barenaked Ladies.  Lately, that song has been going through my head, with one letter changed: “If I Had a Billion Dollars.” 

Most people are probably aware of the challenge issued by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.  They have asked all billionaires to commit to giving away at least one half of their money.  At last report, more than 40 individuals have made this pledge. 

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me what I would do if I were one of these billionaires.  At first, I hemmed and hawed a bit, saying it depended on many factors.  My friend pushed a little harder and said, “Suppose a donor wants to give away $1 billion per year for the next 10 years.  What would you advise that donor?”

Instead of answering off the top of my head, I decided to sleep on the question overnight.  The next morning I typed up the following email.

Among the threshold questions for the donor to ask and answer are the following: 

  • Time horizon.  How long are you willing to wait to achieve success—5, 10, 20 years?  Do you want the impacts to last in perpetuity?
  • Risk tolerance.   Analogous to private equity, the size of the impact generally varies inversely with the likelihood of success.  For example, the impact of peace in the Middle East would be enormous, but the likelihood of success is small.  How will you feel if you work on something for 5 or 10 years and it fails?
  • Passion. What are you most passionate about?
  • Deep vs. broad.  Would you prefer to have a huge impact on thousands of people or a smaller impact on millions or billions of people?
  • Demographic subgroups. Do you want to concentrate more on the U.S. or on other countries?  Do you have a special interest in children, women, the elderly, the ill, or some other group?

 Ideas to consider 

  1. Solicit ideas in a retail manner. Have a very public, web-based competition to suggest ideas for how to use the money.  Billions of brains thinking about this are better than a smaller number.  Make it a wiki process so that people can see and improve upon the ideas of others.
  2. Solicit ideas selectively.  Spend a few months interviewing and picking the brains of the 100 or so most intelligent and creative people in the world from all walks of life: scientists, artists, clergy, philosophers, inventors, etc.  Also, get advice from Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and other philanthropists who have been doing this for a while.
  3. Focus on climate change. A persuasive case can be made that the biggest challenge facing the human race is climate change and that we must act immediately.  Consult Al Gore and other experts to determine where you could make a difference.
  4. Focus on solar energy. The world’s energy needs require the equivalent of a new nuclear power plant every day for the next 40 years.   The only way to meet those needs is to get a significant portion of the world’s energy from the sun.   There is more than enough energy from the sun to provide for all the world’s needs if we could only figure out how to convert it to usable energy cost effectively.
  5. Adopt a city. Pick a struggling mid-sized city in the U.S. and provide their current residents with funds for greatly enhanced public education, universal health care, infrastructure, job training, and human services.  Use money to induce employers to relocate to this city thus providing jobs and a new economic base.  As Maimonides said, the highest form of charity is to give a person a job or the means for self sufficiency.
  6. Adopt a country. Do the same thing described in #5 for an underdeveloped country.  In this case, funds might also be used for immunizations, clean water supplies, and other basic human needs.
  7. Don’t reinvent the wheel.  Pick a handful of organizations that are doing outstanding work and give them a huge infusion of funding— an endowment or a guaranteed revenue stream for 10 or 20 years.  At the international level, this might include organizations like Ashoka, which funds social entrepreneurs, or the Central Asia Institute, (created by Greg Mortenson who wrote Three Cups of Tea) which builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  At the national level, this might include organizations like Teach for America or Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone.
  8. Cure a disease. After consultation with experts from places like the CDC and NIH, select one or two diseases that might be cured in the next 10-20 years.  Get researchers from around the world to work both independently and collaboratively.  Give a large prize to the researchers who succeed.  Keep substantial funds in reserve to produce and distribute the cure in case it’s in the form of a drug or a vaccine.
  9. Provide universal preschool in the U.S. Evidence is overwhelming about the importance of early childhood education.  It’s essential in brain development and the key to bridging the achievement gap between lower and higher socioeconomic groups.  Every child should have access to a high quality preschool education with well-compensated and trained teachers.
  10. Replace the National Endowment for the Arts. Create a national endowment for the arts so that government doesn’t have to do it and so that politics will be removed from the arts.  Concentrate funding on new plays, new music, and new works of visual art.  The arts are one of the key differences between civilized and non-civilized societies.  We need food for the soul as well as food for the body.
  11. Buy out a dictator or two.  Pay a couple of dictators a lot of money to give up all power and leave the countries that they rule.  Then give many times that amount of money to the country to build a democracy.  

Needless to say, this is only a partial list of hundreds of ways to spend this money wisely.  Additionally, I still have not decided what I would say if I were forced to pick only one idea.

I think this was a valuable exercise as it relates to The Denver Foundation’s upcoming Strategic Planning process.  Even though it will probably be a very long time before The Denver Foundation has $1 billion a year to give away, and even though our geographic focus is more limited than many of the ideas on the above list, the thought process involved is similar.  We at The Denver Foundation would welcome your ideas about what you would do if you had $1 billion – or, for that matter, any amount less than that.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation





Interview with a Veteran of Hope: Dr. Vincent Harding

17 08 2010

Lauren Casteel and I recently had the honor of meeting with Dr. Vincent Harding, Professor Emeritus at the Iliff School of Theology.  Dr. Harding graciously agreed to talk to us about The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project.  Because he was so eloquent, I have decided not to try to paraphrase his words.  Instead, I am presenting this in interview format.  We did not tape record the conversation, so Dr. Harding’s comments are not reported verbatim.  However, he reviewed, edited, and approved them before we posted this.  This is a long post; I encourage you to read the whole thing if you have time. 

Denver Foundation: Thank you for agreeing to let us pick your brain about the future of The Denver Foundation and philanthropic needs in our community.

Dr. Harding: You may pick my brain as long as you also pick my heart.

Your question has touched a spigot.  The first thing that came to my mind was a conversation my wife Rose and I had with María Guajardo when we first came to Denver in 1981.  María reminded us that demographers were predicting that Denver was a few decades ahead of the United States in terms of its diversity.  Therefore, what we do here is not limited to our city.  We in Denver can make a contribution to the entire country.

I am currently writing an article for Sojourners magazine about the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Martin said he dreamt of a time when his children will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.  The question that follows is how do you measure the content of a person’s character?  You must know that person as an equal, as a fellow human being.  We do not have the social or other structures to draw us into the encounters which will make it possible for us to be able to measure each other’s character.

Secondly, Martin dreamt of the time when little black and white girls and boys will be able to join hands.  Here again, the question is how they can get close enough to join hands when society today is pulling them apart.

So, this is on my mind when I think about what our community needs.  The Denver Foundation should convene people frequently.  The foundation should help to measure the character of people and to bring children close enough to be able to join hands.  Children start out with the need to join hands, but they can be discouraged by silence and by the absence of opportunities for touching and being touched.   

The Denver Foundation: What could the process of bridge building mean?  How do you practice the process of building common ground? Is the current economic and political environment changing this?  

Dr. Harding: The United States Social Forum recently met in Detroit.  This is a group of community organizers whose manifesto, which started in Brazil, says, “Another world is possible.”  They’re developing models for what a post-industrial city should look like and be like.  Grace Boggs, widow of the late Jimmy Boggs, is a first generation Chinese-American who speaks about this.  She notes that there are two aspects of the Chinese character for crisis: a time of great danger and a time of great opportunity.

The Great Depression caused a lot of pain but also generated a lot of creativity.

A West African, during the liberation struggles against colonialism in the 1960s, said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.”  You have to dream something before it can happen.

The Gardening Angels are a group of African-Americans in Detroit who moved there from the South.  They are teaching young children about community gardens.  They are one image that comes to my mind.  Schools in Detroit are now developing school gardens, where food goes straight into the school lunch program.  Look for opportunities for children to do things creatively together.

In our Ambassadors of Hope Project, we had diverse teens living together for a few weeks on the University of Denver campus.  None of these kids had ever lived with people from a different racial group.  One of these teens is now a youth organizer for Padres Unidos.  There, he is trying to bring black and brown children together.  We can help dozens of young people like him.

What kind of education is necessary to nurture young people who will be leaders in the development of a multiracial, compassionate democratic society? How do you create compassionate democratic leaders? How do you nurture people who can lead a multiracial society?  The Denver Foundation, located in a city like this, is well positioned to help with this work.

You do not become democratic just by being born here.  The democratic spirit has to be nurtured and developed.

Until Montgomery, most of us in the North (black and white) looked at rural southern black people as being somewhat backward.  Those people surprised us and became the heart of the movement to transform our entire nation.  “At risk” kids are really children of promise.

The Denver Foundation: We are increasingly concerned about boys in our society.  What do you think?

Dr. Harding: I have seen what great things young men can do.  But they have to be surrounded by people who value them.  We need to encourage young men to be all that they can be.  The New Jim Crow talks about how the U.S. penal system is turning young men into outcasts without any sense of future.  The author talks about the school-to- prison pipeline.

The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this work without being top down?

Dr. Harding: Start with people like Terrance Roberts from Prodigal Son and women from Mi Casa who are already working in the community.  The Denver Foundation should be honest brokers.  Bring together people from multiple generations, from separated communities.

The Denver Foundation:  For the last four years, we have hosted a paid internship program for college students to work in local nonprofit organizations.  We focus on students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in the nonprofit sector.

Dr. Harding: This sounds like a great program.  You should ask your interns what is their purpose now.  Many of them have overcome huge obstacles.  The question is, what next?  Do they want to be famous or make money, or do they want to help create the country that does not yet exist?

I remember that in the years before the Southern Freedom (Civil Rights) Movement picked up momentum many black (and some white) southerners dealt with the terrors and injustices of white supremacy by leaving the south.  It was only after a new generation of young people decided to stay and work for change that the south and the nation could be transformed.  (For instance, Martin Luther King declined numerous job offers in the North in order to return to the South.)  The work is clearly not complete but it could not have been begun unless a generation decided to stay and commit themselves to the dangerous and magnificent work of change.  I believe the same commitment, vision and courage are needed to creatively transform our urban areas—South, North, East and West including Denver, Colorado.  I don’t think that it’s wise to give our best and brightest young people the signal that their ultimate goal should be to escape from their home communities.  Young people who do succeed in overcoming difficult circumstances should do more than just buy their momma a house.  We need to encourage them to help transform the communities from which they came.

The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this?

Dr. Harding: For starters, find people like me who have been through that experience who can talk to them, also, give people regular opportunities to come together.  We need to develop new institutions for nurturing people – this used to be done by families, churches and schools.  Your internship program sounds good, but do not drop them at the end of the summer.

The Denver Foundation: Who has been most influential in you life?

Dr. Harding: There are so many people: my mother, my wife, my daughter, and many of my teachers.

The Denver Foundation: What role do you think The Denver Foundation should play in education?

Dr. Harding: The Denver Foundation should help to create a humane public-school education experience for the children of this city.  Young people have to be nurtured in the meaning and beauty of multiracial democratic life.  People have discomfort taking on issues of race and class in America.  We have to address these questions with our young people.  Something has to be done to help teachers talk creatively about race and the gifts of a multiracial society.

– David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation





Charter Schools: Pro or Con?

15 04 2010

A few years ago, The Denver Foundation conducted a Listening Campaign.  We consulted hundreds of leaders in the local nonprofit community and asked them about issues, needs, and priorities.  To our surprise, one issue rose to the top of the priority list for people from every category of nonprofit organization.  The number one priority among people who work for health organizations, arts organizations, and human services organizations was…education.

Everyone has an opinion about education, particularly K-12 education, because all of us experienced it in our childhood.  I think it is also fair to say that no one feels public education in the United States today is adequate.  When it comes to educating our children, the United States compares poorly to most other developed nations.

We all agree that education is critically important and that public K-12 education needs improving.  Beyond that, there is very little consensus about the appropriate solutions.

Some people argue that the schools just need more money.  They cite low teacher pay and the huge array of non-educational challenges that schools must address: hunger, mental health, and discipline to name just a few.

Others argue that money will not solve the problems at all.  As one of my conservative friends once observed, “If you are headed from Denver to Colorado Springs and trying to get to Fort Collins, it doesn’t help to double your speed!”

Some people believe that the public school system in the United States is beyond repair and that the solution is private school vouchers.  Opponents of vouchers assert that they would destroy our public schools, which are an indispensable element of our democracy.

A less radical step that has been proposed in the last few decades is charter schools.  Charter schools are technically public schools, but they usually have autonomy from union contracts and other public school regulations.

In the past decade, The Denver Foundation funded a number of charter schools.  Our Board and our Education Committee have concluded that charter schools have the potential to inject more competition into the public schools without eviscerating them the way vouchers would.  In a sense, charter schools can be seen as a middle ground between vouchers on one hand and more money without reform on the other hand.

Some charter schools have been extraordinarily successful, in Denver and elsewhere.  Other charter schools have been mediocre or worse.  To their credit, the Denver School Board has gradually come to accept and endorse charter schools.  Those charter schools that have been particularly successful are being allowed to expand and multiply.

Paul Teske, a professor at the University of Colorado, has studied charter schools around the country.  Dr. Teske believes that at some point charter schools have enough critical mass to change an entire school district.  According to Dr. Teske, there is a tipping point at which this occurs.  If 15-20% of students in a particular district are enrolled in high-performing charter schools, it is usually sufficient to reform the entire district.

The Denver Public Schools is slowly but steadily approaching this tipping point.  As a result, I anticipate that The Denver Foundation will continue to support successful charter schools in the years ahead.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Note: Shortly after I wrote this piece, I had a “Next Decade Project” meeting with Paul Alexander, Director of the Institute on the Common Good at Regis University.  Paul noted that the current educational model in the Denver Public Schools and elsewhere is based upon competition among schools.  He suggested that we as a society might consider a different model that is more holistic and collaborative.  Paul’s idea is intriguing and definitely worthy of more consideration.








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