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We Can Be Like Buffett: Jackman-Atkinson

February 25, 2017 7:56 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

NEEPAWA, Man. — “Greed is good,” proclaimed Gordon Gekko, the fictional corporate raider in Oliver Stone‘s 1987 movie Wall Street. Written as a story about the perils of greed, it was adopted by a generation (or two) of bankers and executives as a kind of mantra. Then 10 years ago, the Great Recession hit and the general public began to realize that for the vast majority of them, “Greed is good” was coming at their expense. It came in waves of factory closures, home foreclosures, business restructuring and aggressive cost-cutting. It came with stories of deals that were technically legal, but while they may have followed the letter of the law, they weren’t true to the intent.

To a certain extent, greed is good. Greed drives business owners to expand and provide more jobs to people, it drives them to produce more and better products so that more consumers buy them, it drives them to cut prices to gain a larger market share. The problem is that this philosophy can’t, and shouldn’t, be applied to every aspect of one’s life.

While the U.S. is rife with stories of senior executives in this mold, it also has its share of extremely successful, but also philanthropic business owners. Last week, two of the country’s most prominent philanthropic billionaires, Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, were in the news. Ten years ago, Buffet announced that he would be giving the bulk of his $61 billion fortune to five charities. The biggest share, $31 billion in 2006, would go to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with more to follow. Over time, the total will reach $44 billion. The 2006 gift was, and remains, the largest single gift given to any organization by any individual. With this milestone anniversary approaching, Buffett suggested the Gateses look back at the work that has been achieved by the charity, which focuses on global health and development.

The Gateses’ response was making the rounds on the Internet last week and includes some numbers that give us hope for those around the world. The numbers are staggering: since 1990, 122 million children under five years of age haven’t died, they would have if pre-1990 trends had continued; 86 percent of children worldwide receive basic vaccines, the highest ever recorded; and extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990.

Despite these great gains, people remain pessimistic about the state of the world. Bill Gates says that in a recent survey, only 1 percent of people knew that extreme poverty had been cut in half and 70 percent thought that poverty had increased by 25 percent or more.

Philanthropy is different from business notes Melinda, while the goal of any commercial enterprise is to stay in business, “In our case, nothing would make us happier than going out of business because we’ve achieved our goals,” she said. Their goal is zero preventable deaths. The closet disease to reaching this magic number is polio; in 1988, there were 350,000 new cases and last year, there were just 37. Those cases were confined to war-torn areas, where it’s hard for children to get immunized. The eradication of polio has a local connection too, Polio Plus, a program funded by Rotary International, and each individual local Rotary Club, has been leading this flight long before the Gateses got on board.

Melinda closes with these words that sum up the concept that a sharp business sense and a generous spirit can indeed co-exist, even in the third richest American, “Warren, you’re one of the most competitive people we know. But outside business, and bridge, and golf, you are the most generous person we know, donating your life’s earnings to others and counting on us to make good decisions.”

While Buffet’s donation may have been largest, he is far from the only billionaire giving away their money. While it’s doubtful that any of us would ever be able to make such enormous donations, the reminder is an important one and hopefully one that will spur additional charitable giving, both large and small.