Future Philanthropy 1 – The Eye of the Needle Foundation
By David Brin, 2000
Imagine that you want to change the world, but have just a measly $1 million to spend or give away. Wonderful things can be done with sums that size — endow a university chair, revitalize some inner city school, or transform a few villages in a poor nation. Those are worthy goals. Yet, some people want more bang for their bucks. Alas, a million just doesn’t go far, these days.
Unless it can be used to leverage far bigger sums. The approach is called “pump-priming”, and there may be some intriguing ways to accomplish it in the modern era.
Consider two major reservoirs of potential philanthropy:
- We are about to experience the greatest inter-generational transfer of wealth in human history, passing from the World War Two generation to the clade of Baby Boomers. By some estimates, the amount will surpass 15 TRILLION DOLLARS. This huge inheritance has implications for capital flow, investment and tax planning. Moreover, if just one additional percent of this sum somehow diverted to philanthropic ends, it would add up to roughly $150 billions — enough to take on projects of great magnitude, once thought reserved to just a few continental governments.
- The paper wealth generated by the new economy, especially among high-tech and e-business entrepreneurs, has created a new class of super-wealthy individuals, many of them deeply concerned about the world where their money must be spent and where they will live for decades to come. Some of these people are both sophisticated and imbued with the notion of “positive sum games”… the idea that it’s possible to do well by doing good. They may be receptive to projects that, while helping others, also have speculative potential for outstanding long term profitability.
These two reservoirs overlap, of course. Yet each poses particular problems and opportunities to those hoping to unleash the giving imperative. When it comes to pump-priming, we must ask — what targeted efforts may provoke increased philanthropic giving among both major groups?
Already, great efforts have been made, using appeals to generosity, altruism, nostalgia and public relations. Perhaps, through some relatively inexpensive pump-priming, it may be possible to provoke even greater levels of beneficial action by offering the wealthy two additional incentives.
- Historical Immortality
- The pleasures of high stakes investment in long-shot ventures… atypical investments that do plenty of short term good, but may also reap big profits over extended time scales.
In part one of this series, I will address the first of these two incentives — historical immortality — and how a particular kind of selective pump priming may hit just the right note, provoking release of some of those billions that we see lying around, turning them to good use.
The Appeal of Undying Fame
Let’s imagine together. Suppose a new campaign hits all the elite avenues, from Newport to Rancho Santa Fe, urging a passing generation “… not to leave it all to your spoiled offspring. Instead, use your hard-earned gains to buy yourself a little immortality…” The same immortality won by the Medicis, or by Pope Julius II who funded Michelangelo. Or by the Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain who financed Columbus’s voyage of discovery.
Now of course, this has always been part of the philanthropic sales pitch. The practice of naming buildings, institutes, chairs etc. after large donors is based partly on the impression these gifts make upon the contemporary community… but also an underlying hope that the impression will last some time into the future. Certainly Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller used large dollops of cash to influence how they would be regarded by later generations.
The lure of immortalization is well-known. Still, it is questionable whether this human imperative has been adequately leveraged. Is it possible that, by thinking small, we are passing up a chance to raise the philanthropy rate to %10 or more, releasing as much as a trillion dollars for projects that bypass the short-investment horizons of both markets and governments?
New cities could be built and named for a single benefactor. (“Gatesograd”? “GatesTopia”?)
With the $25 Billion that Sam Walton left to five people, he could have funded a manned mission to Mars. In exchange, how could the International Astonautical Union refuse to rename the moon Deimos, changing it to”Walton”? Old Sam missed that bet, but another multibillionaire may not.
Some entrepreneur who got rich by exploiting rights-of-way in the U.S. might act to preserve rights-of-way in some rapidly urbanizing nation, enabling a promising city to develop their data, commuter, and service corridors without costly disruptions… and offering real profit potential.
Could today’s super-wealthy actually be persuaded to part with much of their accumulated capital in such grand and extravagantly generous ways? The possibility may be worth investigating, by trying a small scale experiment in pump priming.
Consider a modest institution called the Eye of the Needle Foundation or “EON.” Its symbol, a camel sailing easily through a needle’s eye, makes an unsubtle biblical reference to helping rich folks “reach heaven” by means of well-targeted altruism. Its aim is to offer dramatic, extravagant, altruistic… and possibly historic ways for billionaires to spend their money.
How does it work? You start by gathering 100 or so pragmatic but far-seeing individuals — thinkers widely respected for their insight and practical accomplishments — then provide them with resources to analyze and compare two lists:
- Widely acknowledged world problems.
- Speculative but plausible endeavors — potential solutions — which have already been publicly discussed but have so far failed to attract capital funding from either governments or industry.
THE GOAL of this conference would be simple and well-defined — to create a very special — and uniquely expensive — gift catalog. Gilt-edged, with platinum bindings.
A 100 page registry of bold ways to change the world.
These would be projects that ill-suit the typical investment horizons of industry or government, the two dominant capitalizing forces of the 20th Century. Because each must retain a certain degree of stodgy accountability — to constituents or stockholders — governments and corporations must control risk in ways that don’t always hamper an individual billionaire. Indeed, risky projects may attract the next generation of Waltons partly because they are gaudy, risky… and above all memorable.
The cheapest (“discount”) project described in the EON catalog might cost $100 million. The biggest would take a couple of Sam Waltons working together… perhaps 50 Billion dollars. In addition to a detailed prospectus outlining costs, technical obstacles, social benefits and time scales, each concept included in the catalog would be given three score values, representing EON’s best estimate of:
- The project’s likelihood of success, if fully funded.
- Odds that success might someday result in new fonts of commercial profitability.
- A best-guess likelihood that, in the event of full success, the funder will be remembered on the same scale as Lorenzo di Medicis, Pope Julius, Ferdinand and Isabella… or possibly Pharoah Cheops – the pyramid builder.
Hypothetical example #1. A Freelance Manned Mars Mission est. cost $25 Billion
Chance of success if fully funded?
Chance of profitability? (Short term / after 50 years)
5% / 20%
Likelihood of immortality to funder, in event of success
Example #2. Build a hi-efficiency city in the Third World from scratch est. cost $25 Billion
Chance of success if fully funded?
Chance of profitability? (Short term/After 50 years)
25% / 50%
Likelihood of immortality to funder, in event of success.
Of course the catalog would include some ideas that are both cheaper and more plausibly profitable.
Example #3: Wind Funnel Energy and Water Tower for desert nations est. cost $150 Million
Chance of success (according to recent studies)
Chance of profitability? (10 / 30 years)
60% / 90%
Likelihood of immortality to funder, in event of success?
EON obviously, even blatantly, appeals to an ever-present temptation to “buy immortality,” the deeply human drive that motivates largesse in all cultures. What else can you purchase, when you already have everything? It’s a pitch already used by fund developers all over the world.
But EON is a lot bolder than just getting a university building named after you! The catalog may tempt some wealthy persons to fund projects with risky success or profitability scores… but potentially high payoff in the good regard of future generations. Just the sort of far-reaching gambles that governments and marketplace investors prudently avoid, yet the sort of endeavors that great empires and religions of the past endowed precisely because they would echo across time.
Indeed, some participants may justify the expense, saying: “I’ll do this because I can.”
What would it take to try out this pump-priming notion. Can it live up to its promise?
A good outline of the EON Catalog could emerge after two or three conferences, starting rather small. Some of today’s brightest visionaries and technical experts would be invited to exchange ideas and compile an initial list spanning every philanthropic area from education to experimental medicine to abstract science. At each stage, participants would supply materials for evaluating candidate projects and pose further questions to be answered before each gets added to the registry.
At minimum, conference participants would create a fascinating report, shedding light on bold endeavors that humanity may engage in, during the coming century — a product of considerable value and interest in its own right! Ideally, however, the report would also be polished into something more effective and profound… an elite, gilt-edged catalog more exclusive and interesting to the mega-wealthy than anything published by Niemann Marcus.
(A requirement nearly as important as the catalog itself will be finding the right sales force. The super-rich are used to being swarmed over by charities, so EON must have representatives from the class of people so famous they can walk through all doors (e.g. Walter Cronkite or Robert Redford). This may be easier than it sounds, since the 100 page catalog is sure to have at least a few projects that such people will be passionately interested in… especially if a few of them take part in the conferences.)
If the initial exercise works out, a small foundation would be set up to run this innovative experiment in philanthropy. The EON Foundation would have no interest in which project a particular magnate selects, other than perhaps a .0001% fee for serving as a ‘dating service’ between the super-rich and some attractive projects. When a page is purchased and removed from the book, an ongoing commission of experts will choose the next worthy project to insert in its place.
Thus, with an initial endowment well under a million, EON might leverage long term effects far beyond most other charitable endeavors, taking philanthropy into new territory as we enter a new millennium.