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Do Kenya’s rich understand philanthropy?

The man who amassed the biggest fortune in history is going to devote the rest of his life to giving it away. The man who amassed the second-largest fortune in history is joining him. If there was bigger news than that this year, I must have missed it.

This is remarkable stuff. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the world’s richest man, is leaving his day job to concentrate his efforts on the good works being done by his Gates Foundation. He intends to commit the same energy and time to doing good that he has thus far devoted to making money.

His friend Warren Buffet, investor par excellence and the world’s second-richest man, has done something just as astonishing. He is giving away $37 billion, which is most of his fortune and twice Kenya’s GDP. But interestingly, he is giving $31 billion of that to the Gates Foundation. In other words, he is NOT setting up his own new foundation; he is NOT attaching his own name to his gigantic donation. Instead he is giving the cash to someone he thinks will make good use of it.

Why are we all astounded? Because we have led ourselves to believe that selfishness is the characteristic that defines the human being. That everyone looks out for No. 1, and the devil takes the rest. That we have no business worrying about the wellbeing of the have-nots. That we must accumulate, accumulate, accumulate for as long as this mortal coil holds us.

Certainly we can imagine the reactions in Kenya. “Are these people mad?” “Make unimaginable sums of dosh, just to give it all away?” And: “How do I get in touch with the Gates Foundation, so that I can get some of that action?”

While we scratch our heads in confusion, a new type of philanthropy is being born. Bill Gates is the top businessman of his generation. His company, Microsoft, was a mere idea just 25 years ago. Today it is a giant amongst giants, at its peak valued at nearly half a trillion dollars (don’t even try to count that). When this man says he intends to focus on philanthropy as his main job, the world pays attention. The Economist ran a cover of Mr. Gates cradling an African child, titled “Billanthropy”.

Now, Mr. Gates will be heading a foundation with assets of $60 billion, making it larger than most multinational companies. But the big news is this: he will apply the same skills that made him the world’s most successful businessman to his charitable pursuits. And that’s why this is important.

Philanthropy has not traditionally been the best-run of pursuits. Charities tend to waste a lot of money. They expend large proportions of what they raise in maintaining large, inefficient organisations. They often put their funds to poor use. The business skills that are commonplace in the world of making money are usually severely lacking in the world of giving it away.

Bill Gates is doing it differently. He is what The Economist calls a “venture philanthropist”: in other words, he assesses good initiatives, backs them – and dumps them if they fail. He measures the performance of all the money he gives away – it still has to work hard for him. And the good news for Africa is that his business-savvy brand of “do-gooding” is focusing on the poorest countries and the diseases that ravage them.

It’s time for Kenyan tycoons to take note. They may not be in the Bill ‘n’ Warren league, but we certainly have no shortage of munificently endowed moguls. In many cases (unlike Bill ‘n’ Warren) they didn’t even have to be particularly hard-working or spectacularly intelligent to earn it. But do they give it away? Do they hell. Our top dogs spend more on their lunches and golf kits than they do on doing good. They squander money on egotistical political campaigns and on palatial rural homes with which to impress the country cousins. They buy limos like you and I buy trousers. But use the money to do enormous good? Um, no.

When big Kenyans give, they give small change, and usually on the lawns of State House in return for a presidential handshake with the cameras whirring.

We have to wonder why. Listen to another loaded fellow, Larry Ellison. He’s only 15th in the rich fellows’ league, and has been known for his flashy lifestyle. But recently, even he’s having a rethink: “I think after a certain amount I’m going to give almost everything I have to charity. Because what else can you do with it? You can’t spend it, even if you try. I’ve been trying.”

The top business community of this country could get together to form an irresistible movement for good. Run like a corporation, this organisation would raise money without breaking a sweat, would select and monitor projects for their impact, and would manage them with leading-edge skills and tools. Like Bill’s foundation, such an institution would make a real difference to the lives of millions. Nothing stops us from doing this, except that we can’t leave our massive egos under the bed when we set out to do good. Oh, and the need to have our names recorded somewhere in lights.

But do you have to have money flowing from every orifice in order to do good in the world? Not at all. No matter how modest your bank balance, you have a treasury of things at your disposal to give away. It could be your fourteenth shirt that might become somebody else’s second. It could be the encouragement you give to someone striving to earn a crust and getting nowhere. It might just be the applause you give to those out there living for others, giving them the strength to carry on.

More importantly, if you count the knowledge you have accumulated in your years of life, you may just realise that you are sitting on some awesome coffers. It would be a crying shame if all you lawyers and accountants, engineers and economists, technicians and supervisors went to your graves without passing that knowledge on.

The human endeavour is only meaningful if we realise our place in the cosmos that surrounds us. In ourselves we are nothing – mere molecules, soon to be scattered. That applies whether you are a Gates or a Gitau, a Buffet or a Bilal. But while those molecules are gathered together in a particular shape, we have enormous opportunity to contribute to the whole business of living and dying with honour. We are nothing and everything at the same time. We are both meaningful and meaningless. To understand this is to step up to the next level of existence.

So get out of your shops and your offices, and look around you. There’s more to this game than there seems, as Numbers One and Two (by human measure) have just demonstrated. “Shrouds don’t have pockets”, pointed out Joan Weill, the wife of another top nabob. Whatever you have, it ain’t going with you. So put it to use before your time is gone.

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