Warren Buffet and Bill Gates should not expect Larry Page to sign on to their high profile giving initiative any time soon. Page, CEO of Google and with a net worth of $31.4 billion had some interesting things to say about philanthropy and change while in Vancouver for a TED talk – particularly for charities who are looking to high-income people to contribute more.
As reported in Wired magazine,
“Running through Page’s plans for Google was… a faith that business is the best way to build his version of a better future… a sentiment that Page had apparently voiced before that rather than leave his fortune to a cause, that he might just give it to Elon Musk. Page agreed, calling Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars “to back up humanity” a worthy goal. “That’s a company, and that’s philanthropical,” he said. Especially in technology, we need revolutionary change, not incremental change.
…Page wants to build the future that we all may very well end up living in.”
Do we want what they want?
The perspectives of potentially important donors have significant implications for charities competing for scarce dollars. Do charities and nonprofits desire that “revolutionary change” that visionary entrepreneurs have managed in the private sector? I think so. Elon Musk, with the Tesla electric car and Space-X, is a good example of private sector-led economic/technological transformation and an understandable focus for Page’s comments.
This search for ideas and approaches that go beyond incremental changes is not confined to the private sector. Charities want to explore new approaches to achieve their goals by capturing the imagination of increasingly savvy donors, be they extremely wealthy or more average Canadians.
Making Haiti a G8 country is harder than going to Mars
It would be short-sighted of charities to ignore the examples of visionary entrepreneurs, or simply assume that their fancy strategies won’t work in our sector. On the other hand, Page and others should be aware that our earthly challenges are difficult, that transformative change can be painstakingly slow.
The human factor
Page reasons along the following lines: Elon Musk has been successful in the complicated world of electric cars and space travel. So obviously, similar approaches on our part will deal with an array of problems from poverty alleviation to third world development to the conquest of disease. Right? There is no realization that the answer to the question “if we can put people on the moon or on Mars why can’t we conquer poverty or homelessness?” is actually blindingly simple. It is because dealing with human beings, building consensus and bringing about sustained change is actually quite a lot harder than producing an electric car.
Charities need a balanced attitude to the observations of successful entrepreneurs like Page – open to learn from his experience and innovation and technological expertise, but aware of the complexity of the human challenges that achieving our missions will involve. Incidentally, Elon Musk has endorsed Gates’ and Buffet’s The Giving Pledge, so perhaps Page has simply chosen a more roundabout way of contributing.