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





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





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