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A new era for supercharged philanthropy

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 28, 2006

In 2001, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched an ambitious program to remake high school education, and help more kids go to college, in their home state of Washington.

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After pouring $134 million into the effort, the foundation has achieved results but also learned hard lessons. Twelve test-bed high schools have redesigned themselves into "small learning communities." About 2,500 low-income students are in college on foundation-provided scholarships.

But as so many education reformers before them have found, efforts to remake the US education system generated a measure of controversy that the Gateses and their foundation weren't prepared for.

"We went into it a little bit naively," Melinda Gates told an interviewer on PBS this week.

But that learning process is part of what makes the Gates Foundation symbolic of what may be the dawn of a new, and extraordinarily dynamic, era in philanthropy.

Of course, it's also sheer scale. As of last month, this was already the world's biggest philanthropic foundation. As of this week, its giving in the fields of global healthcare and US education is poised to double, thanks to a move by billionaire Warren Buffett to donate much of his fortune to the foundation.

Yet what's most remarkable is not just how much the world's two richest men are giving to charity, it's how they hope to do it. To the degree that they can tap contemporary information technology, rigorous managerial techniques, and a determination to partner broadly with other institutions, they could push worldwide philanthropy in new directions – and have a major impact in their own right.

"They're doing something that will be marked ... as the beginning of the new golden age in philanthropy," predicts Paul Schervish, director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. "What is new is the way in which these foundations are themselves hands-on," not just funding others but implementing their own agendas on a global scale.

But Dr. Schervish expects that the publicity it has spawned will inspire innovative giving by other wealthy Americans. Some 7,000 households have wealth surpassing $100 million, he says, and about 500,000 have $10 million or more.

Such moves would tap into a long tradition of philanthropy in America.

In many ways, they are not that different from the model pioneered by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller a century or more ago. Since 1913, for instance, the Rockefeller Foundation has pursued a Gates-like agenda including a global focus on public health.

Where the Rockefeller Foundation focused on vaccines for yellow fever, the Gates Foundation is supporting the quest for a malaria vaccine. America's 19th- century magnates didn't spawn foundations as large as the Gateses', even after adjusting for inflation. Yet their efforts have had a lasting impact, leaving behind such landmarks as Carnegie libraries in many American towns. The Ford Foundation, founded in the 1930s by Henry and Edsel Ford, still has billions in assets and spent $572 million on program activities in 2005.