Recently I’ve been reading the Giving Pledge letters. These are the letters that rich people write when they join Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge campaign. They take the pledge, promising to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime, and then they write letters describing their giving philosophy.
“I suppose I arrived at my charitable commitment largely through guilt,” writes George B. Kaiser, an oil and finance guy from Oklahoma, who is purported to be worth about $8 billion. “I recognized early on that my good fortune was not due to superior personal character or initiative so much as it was to dumb luck. I was blessed to be born in an advanced society with caring parents. So, I had the advantage of both genetics … and upbringing.”
Kaiser decided he was “morally bound to help those left behind by the accident of birth.” But he understood the complexities: “Though almost all of us grew up believing in the concept of equal opportunity, most of us simultaneously carried the unspoken and inconsistent ‘dirty little secret’ that genetics drove much of accomplishment so that equality was not achievable.”
His reading of modern brain research, however, led to the conclusion that genetic endowments can be modified by education, if you can get to kids early. Kaiser has directed much of his giving to early childhood education.
Most of the letter writers started poor or middle class. They don’t believe in family dynasties and sometimes argue that they would ruin their kids’ lives if they left them a mountain of money. Schools and universities are the most common recipients of their generosity, followed by medical research and Jewish cultural institutions. A ridiculously disproportionate percentage of the Giving Pledge philanthropists are Jewish.
Older letter writers have often found very specific niches for their giving – fighting childhood obesity in Georgia. Younger givers, especially the tech billionaires, are vague and less thoughtful.
A few letters burn with special fervor. These people generally try to solve a problem that touched them directly. Dan Gilbert, who founded Quicken Loans, had a son born with neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that affects the brain. Gordon Gund went fully blind in 1970. Over the ensuing 43 years, he and his wife helped raise more than $600 million for blindness research.
The letters set off my own fantasies. What would I do if I had a billion bucks to use for good? I’d start with the premise that the most important task before us is to reweave the social fabric. People in disorganized neighborhoods need to grow up enmeshed in the loving relationships that will help them rise. The elites need to be reintegrated with their own countrymen.
Only loving relationships transform lives, and such relationships can be formed only in small groups. Thus, I’d use my imaginary billion to seed 25-person collectives around the country.
A collective would be a group of people who met once a week to share and discuss life. Members of these chosen families would go on retreats and celebrate life events together. There would be “clearness committees” for members facing key decisions.
The collectives would be set up for people at three life stages. First, poor kids between 16 and 22. They’d meet in the homes of adult hosts and help one another navigate the transition from high school to college.
Second, young adults across classes between 23 and 26. This is a vastly under-institutionalized time of life when many people suffer a Telos Crisis. They don’t know why they are here and what they are called to do. The idea would be to bring people across social lines together with hosts and mentors, so that they could find a purpose and a path.
Third, successful people between 36 and 40. We need a better establishment in this country. These collectives would identify the rising stars in local and national life, and would help build intimate bonds across parties and groups, creating a baseline of sympathy and understanding these people could carry as they rose to power.
The collectives would hit the four pressure points required for personal transformation:
Heart: By nurturing deep friendships, they would give people the secure emotional connections they need to make daring explorations.
Hands: Members would get in the habit of performing small tasks of service and self-control for one another, thus engraving the habits of citizenship and good character.
Head: Each collective would have a curriculum, a set of biographical and reflective readings, to help members come up with their own life philosophies, to help them master the intellectual virtues required for public debate.
Soul: In a busy world, members would discuss fundamental issues of life’s purpose, so that they might possess the spiritual true north that orients a life.
The insular elites already have collectives like this in the form of Skull and Bones and such organizations. My billion would support collectives across society, supporting the homes and retreats where these communities would happen, offering small slush funds they could use for members in crisis.
Now all I need is a hedge fund to get started.