Monday, June 9, 2008

Money : Giving it All Away

Those who work in the charity sector have a lot to do with donors and typically one comes across one of two types : the obnoxious kind who makes it very clear from the first encounter that they see the charity worker and his agency as nothing more than a glorified beggar. Often this kind is usually not even dealing or handing out his own money. He or she is more likely to be some technical minion for a face less multi lateral or bilateral entity but looking at the airs that the workers put on, one could be excused for assuming that that they are actually reaching into their pockets and purses and making grants.

The other kind is the old style philanthropist – the one who actually gives out his own cash and sees himself as a partner in the whole exercise. Such donors see themselves as partners and catalysts in a much larger vision in which the agency is on the ground is the pivotal player and all others including themselves as ancillary services supporting the hard work on the ground. The first kind of donor may be more professional in their approach, but perhaps it is the second kind who invests a charitable entity with passion, zest and energy that bureaucratic processes can never deliver, no matter how efficient the number crunching. This piece is a sketch of one such philanthropist and how it made a difference and whether we in India will get to the point where philanthropy not only becomes a way of life and people no longer flaunt their wealth but create examples that are worthy of emulation.

Tom White is a devout Catholic and a World War II veteran who returned from the war to inherit his father’s heavy machinery and construction business in the United States and over time made a lot of money. That was in the late 40s. Since then over the next 55 years, Tom White has given away $75 million, pretty much all of his assets. At 84, the construction millionaire has given away his fortune. If he has his way, he’ll be down to his last quarter when he draws his last breath. He has supported more than 100 causes over the years, but his biggest gift by far has gone to Partners in Health, the program made famous last year with the publication of Tracy Kidder’s book “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” As Time Magazine which declared him as the philanthropist of the year in 2001, what set Tom White apart from the other givers like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates or the others is that most” big givers don’t start redistributing their loot until they have made a pile, and many generous magnates, like Turner and Bill Gates, remain very rich even after they have made headlines for their charity.”

The gross inequities in the distribution of wealth in the world and especially among the poor challenged Tom White, relatively less wealthy man compared to the 4 billionaires from India in the latest Forbes’ top 10 billionaires list and the 53 over all billionaires from India in the list of the word’s 1000 richest people. A lot of the social sector work that the government should be doing for its citizens does not get done because our government’s spending priorities are skewed towards national security. India’s defence budget is 960 billion rupees (£12bn) compared with 150.2bn rupees (£1.9bn) for health and 330bn rupees (£4bn) for education - considerably less than the pledged 6 per cent of GDP. With the kind of wealth that now resides in Indian hands, it is embarrassing to say the least that a significant part of the money that supplements the government efforts comes from abroad. Foreign contributions and donations to scores of Indian voluntary organizations, religious groups and charitable institutions every year touch nearly Rs 5,000 crore (Rs 50 billion). Indian philanthropists are badly needed if we are to ever reduce this dependence. But do we have any Tom Whites among us ?

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