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The Business of Giving

Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.

May 20, 2009 at 3:32 PM

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What really happened at the billionaires' private confab

Posted by Kristi Heim

Yes, it's true. A dozen of the richest people in the world met for an unprecedented private gathering at the invitation of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to talk about giving away money.

The May 5 meeting at Rockefeller University included Gates, Buffett, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, Eli Broad, Oprah Winfrey, David Rockefeller Sr. and Ted Turner, among others. The meeting came to light only this week when it was reported by the Web site IrishCentral.


Bill Gates and Warren Buffett led a private philanthropy discussion in a year of diminished portfolios even among top givers.

"It really was a group of friends and colleagues who share a commitment to philanthropy discussing ideas in a round table," said former Gates Foundation Chief Executive Patty Stonesifer, who attended the gathering.

In a phone interview today, Stonesifer sought to dispel notions and reports on the Web that the meeting was somehow veiled in secrecy.

"It wasn't secret," she said. "It was meant to be a gathering among friends and colleagues. It was something folks have been discussing for a long time. Bill and Warren hoped to do this occasionally. They sent out an invite and people came."

"This was about philanthropy and this group sharing their passions their interests," said Stonesifer, who is chairwoman of the Smithsonian Institution. "They each learned from each other about what could really make a difference."

But the Manhattan philanthropy salon raised interest for its uniqueness, and the fact that so many on the Forbes world's wealthiest list were able to meet almost completely under the radar. Other reports about the meeting came out here and here.

"As far as anything we've ever seen before, this group of philanthropists that are so high powered in the same room... I think it's unprecedented," said Chronicle of Philanthropy editor Stacy Palmer, who has been covering philanthropy for 20 years.

The members of the meeting have donated more than $72 billion to charity since 1996, according to The Chronicle.

"Given how serious these economic times are, I don't think it's surprising these philanthropists came together," Palmer said. "They don't typically get together and ask each other for advice."

There was no agenda, and the topics were as diverse as the group, Stonesifer said: "everything from U.S. education to efforts of the U.N. to emergency response in [Hurricane] Katrina and many international issues."

The three hosts [Gates, Buffett and David Rockefeller] "wanted to have a private gathering to discuss with others what motivated their giving, the areas of focus, lessons learned and thoughts on how they might increase giving going forward," Stonesifer said.

The elite group met from 3 p.m. through dinner in the President's House on the university campus. There were no 15-minute speeches, and very little of the conversation focused on the economy, Stonesifer said.

The meeting also didn't produce a clear result. "There was lots of shared information that may lead to more things," she said. "There was no action plan associated with it."

One theme critics of the Gates Foundation have seized upon is a lack of transparency, which a wealthy private confab may not help.

"Now they're in a tricky public perception problem," said Palmer. "This is not just for Gates but Soros or any philanthropists that have as much money to spend as small governments."

"It just gives the impression they were trying to coordinate in some way, which makes some people uncomfortable," she said.

"This is a group of people that are in the spotlight," Stonesifer responded. "They use that spotlight for good to draw attention to these issues. The only reason it wasn't more public was that it was a private and informal gathering to discuss these issues."

And there may be more such forums in the future. "I'm sure these folks will convene in one form or another," Stonesifer said. "This area of giving requires people to collaborate and learn lessons from each other."

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