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


Words of Wisdom from Peter Goldmark

6 08 2010

Readers:  This is Part 2 of a Blog Post about David Miller’s meeting with Peter Goldmark.  Click here for Part 1.

Peter Goldmark did not know what I was going to ask him, so he did not do any advance preparation. Essentially, I asked him what areas he might get involved in if he were running The Denver Foundation in the next several years. He rattled off a large number of ideas in a remarkably short period of time. All of his ideas were off the top of his head, so they were general concepts.

Here are some of the main suggestions Peter Goldmark made for The Denver Foundation to explore:

1. Americans have become very polarized. Do we really want Americans to be fighting each other when the economy is so bad, when millions of American children are in poverty, and when we are facing intense economic competition around the world? The United States was founded on a variety of compromises. For centuries, people in other countries have admired how we govern ourselves – our Bill of Rights, our checks and balances. There is a huge hunger in this country to overcome the growing partisanship. We should encourage our elected officials at all levels to reach across the aisle, make compromises, and work together.

2. Forty percent of carbon emissions come from buildings. We need to reduce the carbon that buildings emit by retrofitting old buildings and building new ones that are cleaner.

A model that might be useful in this regard is the Community Development Corporations (CDCs) of the 1970s and 1980s. CDCs did not just improve housing in blighted areas. They reintroduced social values.  In one building, a middle-aged woman in the Bronx got fed up with the drug dealers. She organized tenants, kicked out the drug dealers, fixed up the building, and became fierce in protecting the building and making people pay rent on time.

The CDC model was successful in part because there were some national intermediaries such as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Intermediaries will probably be necessary for energy efficiency and retrofitting because it is technically complex. These intermediaries can be a buffer between large sources of money and all the local churning. It also is helpful to have a progressive utility company. Such a project could provide jobs, reduce carbon emissions, and use energy more efficiently.

3. The Environmental Defense Fund has organized a project involving business school students and energy efficiency. Twenty business school students are selected for an internship and given a short training program on energy efficiency. Each intern is then assigned to a different company with the task of analyzing the operations of the company to save energy. The first group of 20 interns saved their companies a total of $30 million through energy efficiencies!

4. In today’s world, every foundation, including community foundations, should have an international component. One part of this should be helping to reduce the local carbon footprint, to reduce the global impact of carbon emissions. However, that is not enough. There also should be international engagement. One way to do this might be through the arts and arts exchanges.

5. We need a place where anyone throughout the world can be a citizen. We need a place with no boundaries and no military, a place that transcends nationalism. Perhaps this could be Antarctica. The current treaties regarding the non-militarization of Antarctica expire in a few decades.

6. We are losing newspapers. Think about the value and the skills of the people in the traditional newsroom. How can we preserve that? Perhaps The Denver Foundation could make grants to journalists and young people to deliver independent, high-quality news in the community. You could establish and support what would be the equivalent of a local bureau of the Associated Press.

7. Look for successful programs around the country and bring them to Denver. One example might be a project in Boston called The Community Builders. This organization provides financial coaching for families in low-income housing. It assists them with job connections and seems to be effective and efficient.

8. Work with the state government to create a public authority that buys energy efficient HVAC systems for public buildings of all kinds.

9. Get successful charter schools involved in reducing childhood obesity. These schools are already models for education reform. Use their leadership to help show how school-based programs can be used to reduce childhood obesity.

As you can see, these ideas are both broad and deep. I’m sure if I had another hour with Peter Goldmark he could have doubled the length of this list. These ideas provide great food for thought. I welcome input from readers as to which of these ideas are most worth exploring.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Community Visioning for the Future

3 06 2010

One of my recent Next Decade meetings was with Vincent “Vinny” McGee. Vinny is one of my role models and mentors in the foundation world.

Vinny is currently a senior advisor at the Atlantic Philanthropies and a board member of several foundations. He began his work in philanthropy nearly 40 years ago at The DJB Foundation. For 17 years, from 1984 to 2002, he was Executive Director and Vice President at the Aaron Diamond Foundation and the Irene Diamond Fund.

The Diamonds had set three areas of focus: medical research, minority education, and culture. Interestingly, they requested that the foundation distribute all of its assets within 10 years of the death of either of them.

Within 10 years of the unexpected death of Aaron Diamond, the foundation that Vinny led had supported work of extraordinary progress in AIDS research and treatment. Vinny has now become a well-known expert on foundations that choose to “spend down” and give away all of their assets in a fixed number of years.

Because spending down is not an option for a community foundation, I asked Vinny for other advice about the future of The Denver Foundation. He had several intriguing suggestions. One of his ideas was that The Denver Foundation take a year or so and convene a community scenario-creating process. The Denver Foundation could ask people from all walks of life in the Metro Denver area to participate in thinking about where we want our region to be in the year 2030. This extensive process could include public hearings, children’s essay contest, and the involvement of civic and religious institutions.

As an example, Vinny referred me to a scenario process which he has followed in South Africa. A description of this is available at www.dinokengscenarios.co.za.

This suggestion reminded me of the first job that I had after completing my formal education. In 1979, I was hired by Colorado Governor Dick Lamm to work on his staff, and I was assigned to work on the Front Range Project. The Front Range Project was a community-based effort to examine growth along Colorado’s Front Range from 1980 to 2000. The Front Range Project was very much a community-based scenario-building effort similar to the one that Vinny recommended.

The Front Range Project created an extensive network of citizen committees. There were committees in all 13 of the Front Range counties, from Larimer County in the north (Fort Collins) to Pueblo County in the south. In addition, there were subject area committees, dealing with issues such as transportation, human services, local governments, and natural resources.

The process for selecting the county committees was particularly interesting and unusual. First, we would invite a diverse group of people to come to an organizing meeting in each county. At the organizing meeting, we would ask the participants to list the categories of people that should be represented on the county committee. Typically, participants would suggest categories such as real estate developers, environmentalists, small business owners, and union leaders.

Next, we asked organizing meeting participants to list under each category the key leaders in the county. So, they would list the key real estate developers, the key environmentalists, and so forth. Finally, we asked all of the participants to vote for their top choices in each category.

In this way, environmentalists in the room would vote for real estate developers and vice versa. The people ultimately selected for the county committees would be those who could work effectively with people representing different perspectives. In other words, the real estate developers selected for the committee were individuals most respected by environmentalists and the environmentalists selected for the committee were those most respected by real estate developers.

The resulting county committees included leaders who were able to understand and appreciate different viewpoints. Together, they created impressive visions for the future of the Front Range.

The committees were asked four questions about their county or their subject area:

• Where are we now?

• Where are we headed?

• Where do we want to be in 2000?

• How do we get there?

The visioning process like the Front Range Project has not taken place in 30 years. Is this something The Denver Foundation should organize?

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

A Discussion with Vice President Gore

27 05 2010

A few weeks ago, as part of The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project, I had the honor and privilege of meeting with Al Gore: Nobel Prize winner, Oscar winner, and former Vice President of the United States.  Vice President Gore was in Denver as the keynote speaker at the national conference of the Council on Foundations.  He was very generous in agreeing to meet with me privately to talk about The Denver Foundation.

I explained to Vice President Gore that grants from The Denver Foundation’s community endowment must be used to benefit residents of the seven-county Metro Denver area.  Given our geographical boundaries, I asked what The Denver Foundation might do to address issues raised by climate change.

The Vice President immediately rattled off a list of specific, concrete suggestions.  Among them were the following: 

  • Support tree planting programs 
  • Assist transportation planning, such as conversion of buses to natural gas 
  • Promote energy efficiency programs for buildings; buildings produce 40% of all carbon emissions
  • Enhance and expand recycling and composting programs

I asked the Vice President if he could only select one project what would it be?  He said the top priority should probably be working to increase public awareness of these problems and their solutions.

Finally, I asked if we should focus on the areas that we as a city do pretty well or focus on the areas that we do poorly compared to other places.  He said every city is different, but generally it is better to work on our weaker areas and try to improve them.

Vice President Gore referred me to projects in other cities that are worth studying.  The East Lake project in Atlanta is an example of creative partnerships among real estate developers, foundations, and neighborhood residents.  A similar program is underway in Indianapolis.  These area-wide projects can achieve multiple objectives: reducing crime, improving educational achievement, and strengthening neighborhoods – while at the same time cleaning the environment.  Chattanooga, Tennessee is a city on the forefront of conversions of buses to natural gas.

The Denver Foundation supports a wide variety of environmental organizations and programs through its community grants program and its donor advised funds.  Like all of our grants, they tend to be relatively small.  Grants from the community grants program average about $15,000.  Grants from donor-advised funds average considerably less.

The overwhelming majority of the scientific community is convinced that global warming is a serious problem – if not the most serious problem we face here on earth.  In his keynote speech, Vice President Gore noted that each meter of rise in the ocean level will create 100 million climate refugees!

In light of the magnitude of this problem, should The Denver Foundation in the next decade radically change its approach to grantmaking? 

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Should The Denver Foundation continue to fund health care?

7 05 2010

In a previous post, I posed the question whether The Denver Foundation should continue to fund arts and cultural organizations.  Today, I ask whether The Denver Foundation should continue to fund health care organizations.

Of course, health care is important — that is not the issue.  The question is whether grants from The Denver Foundation can make a significant difference in the area of health care.

The health industry is a large and growing part of the U.S. economy.  Compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on health care every year, grants from The Denver Foundation are literally a drop in the bucket.

In addition, there are four very large health conversion foundations in Colorado.  These foundations are legally required to dedicate all or much of their grant resources to health.  In this environment, it might be argued that The Denver Foundation should dedicate its resources elsewhere. 

On the other hand, it is hard to overstate the importance of health and its connections to the health of our society in general.  Children cannot learn unless they’re healthy.  The unemployed and untrained often cannot get jobs unless they are healthy.

Some years ago, Dr. Mary Pipher wrote a book about aging called Another Country.  In the book, Dr. Pipher distinguishes between “the old” and “the very old.”  From a societal perspective, the very old are much more of a burden on families and on public systems.  From an individual perspective, the difference between these groups is defined almost exclusively by health.  People can be “very old” and in their 50s if they are unhealthy.  Conversely, people can be in their 90s and not “very old” if they are healthy.  The significance of one’s health to one’s quality of life over the long term is paramount and cannot be overstated.

Because of this, I feel strongly that The Denver Foundation should continue to make grants in the area of health.  Despite the large amounts of government and foundation dollars directed toward health care and access to health care, huge gaps remain.  All of the health conversion foundations in Colorado have specific priorities and areas of focus.  There are many unfilled niches where The Denver Foundation can be helpful.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation