When Bill Gates recently announced that billionaires should give away the bulk of their fortunes, it made headlines around the world. While the Microsoft founder is among the world’s wealthiest individuals and perhaps the leading philanthropist of his time, he is just one of many entrepreneurs who have amassed great fortunes in the technology sector and are using their wealth and influence to bring about positive change.
Last year the Wall Street Journal (“Melinda Gates Defines a Charity’s Mission,” June 5, 2008) reported on the “growing class of people who are applying fortunes made in tech and on the Internet to trying to solve some of the world’s most stubborn problems,” including Jeff Skoll and Pierre Omidyar from eBay and Google founders Larry Page and Serge Brin. According to the article, “These new philanthropists — as you might expect — are trying to apply the same nitty-gritty analysis that many may have used to manage their businesses to difficult-to-measure social problems.”
“Philanthropy and technology can create enormous synergy, and the leaders of the tech community see a tremendous opportunity to change the world for the better,” said Mouli Cohen, entrepreneur, who founded eCast, a company that revolutionized the distribution of digital music to out of home venues worldwide and later started Voltage Capital, a private equity focused innovation fund.
Cohen’s start-ups have generated more than $3 billion in shareholder value, but the value he has created through his contributions in the philanthropic arena are perhaps his greatest source of pride. Cohen currently focuses his efforts on the research and treatment of pediatric cancer and blindness through grants to national and international organizations including Camp Okizu and the Childhood Vision Campaign. “I am personally committed to reducing the incidence of childhood blindness in third world countries and expanding the number and reach of cancer detection and treatment programs for children.”
Cohen is among the new breed of tech philanthropists whose involvement extends far beyond their checkbooks. According to Private Wealth Magazine, the confluence of wealth and technology is redefining philanthropy and ushering in an age of innovation and social change:
The entrepreneurs of the ’80s and ’90s have become the philanthropists of the new millennium, leveraging their time, energy and capital toward the social good. Today’s donors are younger, more energetic and more adept at leveraging technology, investing their capital and driving results. Frequently referred to as “venture philanthropists” or “social entrepreneurs,” they are accustomed to achieving success and not used to backing down in the face of resistance. Comfortable with their achievements and confident in their abilities, they are transitioning their passion and talent for creating wealth to its logical corollary: the distribution of wealth—“giving back,” as some would say—with the very same intensity and sense of direction as was required to create their wealth.
Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world’s most generous philanthropic organization, hascalled upon his fellow billionaires to spread their wealth to the poorest nations and make a difference in fighting disease, improving access to education and championing other causes. In announcing hisdeparture from his day-to-day duties as chairman of Microsoft to focus his energies on the Foundation, Gates told reporters, “With success, I have been given great wealth. And with great wealth comes great responsibility to give back to society, to see that those resources are put to work in the best possible way to
help those in need.”
Gates’ message is clearly resonating with the billionaire set. Warren Buffett has pledged to leave the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation, representing perhaps the largest charitable gift in history – estimated at$31 billion.
Although the wealthy certainly have more to give, Cohen argues that philanthropy is not solely the purview of the mega-rich. “There are opportunities for anyone with a passion for a particular cause to add value, not just in terms of monetary contributions. Organizations need tactical philanthropists’ to volunteer their time and provide intellectual and social capital to make sure the money creates the greatest possible impact.”