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





Connecting with a Visionary: Peter Goldmark

26 07 2010

Peter Goldmark is one of the most interesting, creative, and thoughtful people I have ever met.

For starters, Peter’s career is one of the most fascinating I can imagine.  He has worked at very high levels in all three sectors: public, private, and nonprofit.  As a young whiz kid in his 30s, Peter was the budget director for the State of New York and then executive director of the New York Port Authority.  He then became president of the Rockefeller Foundation.  After that, he moved to Europe, where he served as chairman and CEO of the International Herald Tribune.  Today, Peter directs the Climate and Air Program for the Environmental Defense Fund.  What a remarkable career!

I first met Peter about 30 years ago, when I was working for Colorado Governor Dick Lamm.  Governor Lamm invited Peter, who was then head of the New York Port Authority, to a cabinet retreat.  Peter helped put in perspective the problems and issues we were facing in Colorado, and he provided creative suggestions for our state government.

I next saw Peter in 1998, shortly after I had begun work at The Denver Foundation.  Peter was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of community foundations in Miami.  At the time, he was CEO of the International Herald Tribune.  In 1998, community foundation leaders were focused on a variety of local issues, such as crime, education, and access to health care.  In Peter’s keynote speech, he said that the biggest issue confronting community foundations in the United States would be…international terrorism!

This was three years before 9/11.  At the time, I don’t think international terrorism was on the radar screen of any community foundation executive in the United States.  I daresay that most people at the conference thought Peter was a bit crazy.  His admonitions about terrorism seemed unduly alarmist and unrelated to our daily lives. 

Immediately after 9/11, I remembered Peter’s speech.  Through the Council on Foundations, which had sponsored the conference, I was not able to get a transcript of the speech, but I secured an audio tape.  I then transcribed tape and I’ve re-read the speech dozens of times.

Peter was extraordinarily prescient about 9/11.  After describing the threats of international terrorism, he spoke about how to prepare for – and hopefully prevent it.  He said communities need to, “build a framework of trust and shared values which will allow them to work together.  And this is a process in which community foundations have both experience and credentials.”  He went on to say that getting to know your neighbors is also critical.

Peter concluded the speech by imploring communities to be prepared for international terrorism.  “Let us then prepare against a chance, a possibility even as daunting as this, a possibility we would rather not think about, ‘for chance happeneth to them all.’  Societies that prepare themselves to meet severe challenges are the ones that most often surmount them.  Communities that have thought and prepared in order to uphold their most fundamental values in the midst of a crisis are the ones that most often preserve them.”

These remarkable words were spoken three full years before 9/11.  Needless to say, I have thought about them frequently in the last nine years.

When The Denver Foundation and I began the Next Decade Project, one of the very first people I thought to contact was Peter Goldmark.  I couldn’t imagine anyone better to help us gaze into the future and prepare for the next decade.

I contacted Peter and asked if he would be willing to meet with me.  Even though he really didn’t know me, he graciously agreed to have a conversation.  Originally, we were scheduled to meet in California as part of my first trip for the Next Decade Project.  Alas, due to fog in the Bay Area, Peter’s plane was delayed by more than four hours and we were unable to meet.

Shortly thereafter, Peter volunteered to stop in Denver on his way from New York to California.  I am still humbled by this generous act.  The stop in Denver added at least six hours to Peter’s travel day.  And he agreed to do this for a virtual stranger!

I picked up Peter at DIA and we drove to Strings Restaurant for lunch.  I like to patronize Strings because its owner, Noel Cunningham, is one of the most caring and philanthropic people I know.  Plus, the food is delicious.  Peter and I had an extended lunch conversation at Strings, after which I drove him back to DIA for his flight to California. 

In my next blog post, I will recount some of Peter’s many interesting ideas for The Denver Foundation.

 — David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation





Global vs. Local

22 03 2010

I recently read a book called Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  The name of the book comes from a quotation by Mao Zedong in which he notes that women hold up half of the sky.

 The book discusses women’s issues around the world, ranging from prostitution and the sex trade to childbirth and health, from misogyny to microcredit.  The challenges and issues faced by women in developing countries are overwhelming.  The authors relate many heroic stories of individuals and organizations working to address and solve these problems.  Nonetheless, the resources available today are far outweighed by the magnitude of the challenges.

I came away from the book feeling that the problems we face in the Denver area are trivial and insignificant compared to the problems in the developing world.

The messages from the book were amplified many times over by the recent devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.  I have asked myself a somewhat-heretical question: “Should The Denver Foundation consider shifting its funding to international causes?”

Having pondered this question, my answer is a resounding “NO”!  Here’s why: 

  1. The Denver Foundation already does a lot for international causes.  There are two basic types of assets at The Denver Foundation: the community endowment and donor restricted funds.  The community endowment can only be used to support organizations in the Metro Denver area.  Most of the restricted funds, which constitute the vast majority of The Denver Foundation’s assets, can be used to support causes worldwide.  The most common restricted fund at The Denver Foundation is a donor-advised fund, and our donor-advised funds support many international causes.  Already this year, donor advised funds from The Denver Foundation have given more than $100,000 to Haiti earthquake relief. 
  2. We must scrupulously honor the wishes of The Denver Foundation’s community endowment donors.  Since 1925, thousands of individuals have contributed money to The Denver Foundation’s community endowment.  This money is invested, and the earnings from the investments are used to support charitable organizations in the seven-county Metro Denver area.  When these donors contributed to the community endowment, they did so with the understanding that it would be used to support local needs.  Probably the most important thing The Denver Foundation does is to honor the charitable wishes of its many generous donors.  To use money from the community endowment for international purposes would be inconsistent with the intent of our donors and we would never break our trust with them.
  3. There is a lot we can do locally that will directly and indirectly impact international issues.  For example, the more we reduce our energy use and become green, the more we help mitigate certain global environmental problems.  The stronger our local economy and the healthier our local community, the better Denver-area residents will be able to help people in other countries tackle the issues they face.  Finally, through education, we can inspire local residents—especially young people– to help others around the world.

— David Miller/President and CEO, The Denver Foundation