Mar 26, 2011

Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Azim Premji on Philanthropy

Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...Image via WikipediaThis Thursday was quite a special day for me. I got invited as a blogger to a press conference by Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and Azim Premji. When I got to the venue I realised that other bloggers hadn't turned up and I was surrounded by mainstream media types :-)

They started by sharing how this is a visit to China and India to try and meet business leaders and share their experiences in philanthropy and giving.

When asked by a journalist what was the Indian businessmen's response Buffett replied that they met around 70 people and experienced a lot of enthusiasm and interest.

Another journalist asked whether the fact that Indian business folks are mostly 1st generation interferes with giving away. Melinda Gates replied that people who have made the money want to use their business skills to give back. Bill Gates added that what he has seen is that first generation wealth is more generous than dynastic wealth.

Warren Buffett added that he was almost certain that there would be an increasing percentage of people who would give away their wealth.

When Kushan Mitra of the Business Today asked how do they feel when businessmen in India who've made dirty money give it away to make it good money, Bill Gates answered that he's not the Indian police. Education and healthcare in India is a priority and the child who gets the vaccine is not going to question the source of the money.

On a related statement by another jounralist that business uses CSR and philanthropy as an eyewash for their black money Azim Premji retorted that it was a very cynical view that the journalist had and it wasn't true.

On a question how many people committed to giving away their billions, Bill Gates said that wasn't their aim. An overwhelming majority of the people invited chose to come and it is up to them to decide how they want to give back. While in the US they have a "pledging" system - it wasn't for Gates or Buffett to decide what the system should be in India. Buffett said the conversations were amazingly personal in nature. People talked about what they believed in and what they wanted to impact.

When asked why they want to give away their money , Bill Gates said when you're lucky enough to be successful you have a choice on how to spend that money and what to do with it. He and Melinda discovered that philanthropy gave them pleasure.

On a question whether the Indian government's proposal for companies to use 2% of profits for CSR would succeed, Azim Premji was vehement it would not. He said you cannot generate CSR by statutory clauses. It would only lead to misuse. It should ideally be a guideline and not a mandatory rule.

On another question whether the increasing income gap in India was cause for social tension and whether philanthropy was needed for that, Premji said it was mission critical for organizations and also because it was the right thing to do. Talking about his own work with education he said that the government is co-operative and grassroots change is institutionalised with the help of the government. It needs extra-tenacity and timelines are different.

On being asked what has been their most successful project, Melinda Gates talked about the reduction of childhood deaths and the miracles of vaccines, specially cutting the time it takes after a vaccine gets developed in the US to reach Indian states like UP and Bihar.

When a question was asked on why Warren Buffett is looking at spending his wealth in short period of time rather than put it in a trust and spend it over a long time, he shared that he has five foundations (including the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation) which are the recipients of a large percentage of his personal wealth. He has decided on these foundations looking at the kind of people who are managing them and he would rather trust his money to be used better by them, than by someone sixty years later.

On a question on what's the difference between creating wealth and giving away wealth, Buffet answered that in business he's looking at sure shot successes with the information he has. And time frames for success is in a few years. In philanthropy he looks at difficult problems. He shared that he's told his children who work with two of the foundations he's pledged his wealth to that if they are successful after some decades they would have failed, because that would mean they didn't attack a really difficult problem.

When asked about billionaire Carlos Slim's statement that he would rather be a "job creator than a Santa Claus", Buffett claimed it was a false argument. When he or Bill Gates spend their shares and money from their company it does not impact the business viability of those firms to be competitive in the market and to create more jobs. You can do both.
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