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


Help Wanted: Whole Brain Thinkers

18 05 2010

A few months ago, at a meeting of The Denver Foundation’s Arts and Culture Committee, Stephen Seifert made passing comment about a book he had read recently. Stephen is Executive Director of the Newman Center at the University of Denver and a member of The Denver Foundation’s Arts and Culture Committee. The book he recommended is A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.

I finally got around to checking the book out of the library and reading it. I found it to be fascinating and thought-provoking. Pink’s thesis is that the jobs of the future in the United States will require more right brain thinking. It has long been known that the brain has two hemispheres, each with different functions. In oversimplified and over generalized terms, the left side of the brain specializes in logic and analytical thinking, while the right side of the brain specializes in emotions and creativity. Pink suggests that the jobs of the late 20th century, such as computer programmers and engineers, stressed left brain skills, while the jobs of the 21st century will stress right brain skills. The book suggests that each of us ask three questions about our current jobs:

1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?

2. Can a computer do it faster?

3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

I am happy to say that most of us in the nonprofit sector can answer the first two questions “no” and the last question “yes.” That would tend to position us well for the future. Pink goes on to describe in some detail the six senses that will be most helpful in the future. I don’t want to ruin the book by listing and describing the senses, but they include the ability to tell good stories, the ability to combine disparate ideas, and having a sense of humor.

In one of my Next Decade meetings, I met with a technology expert from the Silicon Valley. I expected his advice and predictions for the future to be very technology-oriented. To my surprise, without mentioning Pink’s book, he made several of the same arguments. This technology expert said that one of the biggest losses in education today is the reduction or elimination of art and music programs in the public schools. He posited that the skills one learns from art and music, such as creative thinking, will be even more coveted than expertise in math and science. Daniel Pink is careful to point out that everything we do involves both the left side and the right side of our brain. It is not a question of learning math and science or studying poetry, fiction, and the arts. Rather, we must teach and learn all of these disciplines.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Should The Denver Foundation continue to fund arts and culture?

3 03 2010

I just returned from a trip to the San Francisco Bay area, the first of what will be several trips this year as part of The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project.  In the Bay Area, I met with several leaders from the private, nonprofit, and foundation sectors.  In future blog posts, I’ll talk more about a variety of the issues we discussed.

This post addresses the question of whether The Denver Foundation should continue to fund arts and culture.  Of the people I consulted in the Bay Area, one individual felt that arts and culture should be among our highest funding priorities and another individual felt arts and culture should be among our lowest priorities.  Adapting their advice to the Denver area, their main points might be summarized as follows.

The argument against continuing to fund arts and culture proposes that The Denver Foundation narrow its focus to two or three main areas.  The theory is that in order to make a real difference, we should give a few large grants rather than a lot of a small grants. If The Denver Foundation were to select only a couple of priorities, one could argue that arts and culture would not be among the most pressing needs.  Furthermore, the Metro Denver area is unique in having a dedicated sales tax for arts and cultural organizations.  Because the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District generates more than $30 million per year, some might argue that The Denver Foundation should direct its attention elsewhere.

The arguments for The Denver Foundation continuing to support arts and culture begin with economics.  The economic impact of arts and culture in the Metro Denver area is huge – considerably more than the economic impact of professional sports.  Because a strong economy is the engine that drives progress on social and philanthropic needs, it can be argued that The Denver Foundation should continue to invest heavily in arts and culture. 

Furthermore, a technology expert I consulted in the Silicon Valley stated that arts education is among the most important tools we can give to our children and grandchildren.  Yet most public schools have cut back or eliminated arts education.  This gentleman said that the workers of the future will need training in arts and culture at least as much as in math and science.  Jobs of the future will require flexibility and creativity, skills that are best learned through music, acting, painting, and other art forms.

Right now, I come down solidly on the side of believing that The Denver Foundation should continue to fund arts and culture and I think our Board agrees.  The economic and workforce development arguments are compelling.  In addition, arts and culture are an indispensable part of a civilized society.

In late 2008, as the Great Recession began, The Denver Foundation Board of Trustees courageously decided to make available the same amount of grant dollars in 2009 as were available in 2008.  This meant dipping into our corpus during bad economic times.  As part of this discussion, the Trustees also contemplated devoting more resources to immediate human needs.  After considerable deliberation, the Board unanimously decided not to change the percentage allocations among the foundation’s various grantmaking areas.  The Board unanimously voted to continue supporting local arts and cultural organizations at the same level as in the past.  As one Trustee noted, “During tough economic times, food for the soul is almost as important as food for the body.”

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions regarding The Denver Foundation’s continued funding of the arts and culture.

David Miller/President and CEO, The Denver Foundation