Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Spending it down

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently made a rather startling (at least in charitable-foundation circles) decision: to spend themselves out of existence rather than operate in perpetuity. They will take a while to do it -- they're saying 50 years after the founders' deaths -- but still this makes Gates by far the largest foundation to do that. (And not simply because it's the biggest foundation period: all of the other multi-billion dollar foundations are permanent.)

In a sense this isn't completely surprising, because Warren Buffett's recent decision to give most of his wealth to Gates was on the same basis: that Buffett's funds be eventually spent down not be a permanent endowment. This decision puts Gates on one side of a growing debate within institutionalized philanthropy, which actually traces all the way back to its two American godfathers John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Rockefeller pioneered the concept of endowing large-scale permanent grantmaking, while Carnegie preferred to see his "giving back" completed during his own lifetime.

Each approach has its advocates, but the fact that Rockefeller's concept has predominated is reflected in U.S. law: the "5% rule" for charitable foundations is explicitly based on the idea that most years that will leave the endowment continuing to grow. The high-profile Gates announcement may change that; for starters many lawmakers may not have been particularly aware that permanence isn't actually a universal standard for foundation philanthropy.

The Gates folks also announced that they will accept additional donations, raising the question of whether some more Buffett-scale gifts are in the works there.


sdrone said...

Unbelievable. I can't imagine how they're gonna spend Gates' money AND Buffet's money.

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