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


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.