The art and science of giving it all away

Posted on May 23, 2013 in Inclusion Policy Context – opinion
May 15, 2013.   Margaret Norrie Mccain

Our society has always had a complicated relationship with money. But as the gulf between those who have and those who have not widens, that relationship is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Public institutions are strapped for cash at a time when investments for the public good are desperately needed. Is it any wonder, then, that philanthropy is generating a new buzz?

In their opening letter on the website of their charitable foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates state: “Our friend and co-trustee Warren Buffett once gave us some great advice … ‘Don’t just go for safe projects,’ he said. ‘Take on the really tough problems.’ We couldn’t agree more.”

They go on to explain how their organization teams with others around the world to tackle major social predicaments such as poverty and poor health in emerging nations. Still, here’s their most interesting point: “We focus on only a few issues because we think that’s the best way to have great impact, and we focus on these issues in particular because we think they are the biggest barriers that prevent people from making the most of their lives.”

In other words, they give “strategically.” In fact, this is a rising trend among many who have money. It recognizes that, oftentimes, the best way to solve a seemingly intractable dilemma is to address the root causes.

Of course, the approach is not new: 19th-century Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie spent his final years building libraries because he was concerned about educational standards in the United States.

Philanthropists of the 21st century also recognize in our time — as Carnegie did in his — that private wealth, thoughtfully deployed, can be a powerful tool to remedy serious problems, and so make real and durable progress.

At least, that’s something my husband and I began to recognize in the handful of years before his death. Wallace was an extraordinarily successful business leader, and a very rich man. But he had no particular love of money, and he didn’t understand people who sat on their cash. “What’s the point of that?” he’d say. “Do they expect to take it with them to the grave?”

At the same time, he was a pragmatic man with an analytical mind. He expected his money to work for him. The return on his investment, he insisted, must be the social capital it generated — or would generate.

We researched the issues exhaustively and eventually decided that all the social ills we abhorred — poverty, family violence, addiction — stem from unwholesome conditions and influences kids face in the early stages of their lives. It followed, then, that if we want to produce a peaceful, prosperous society, we have to try to create a system where children are well-nurtured, well-cared-for, loved, touched and stimulated to meet the requirements of what we know they need for healthy development.

This is now the organizing principle of my job, the essence of my strategic philanthropy. The long-term objective is clear: In selected Atlantic Canada communities, we work to transform existing public-health, family-support, child-care and early-education resources into effective, integrated early-childhood programs that provide opportunities for all young children and their families.

In this regard, we work to amplify efforts to put science into actions that benefit the lives of young children. We want nothing less than a pan-Canadian alliance to promote policies for integrated provincial/territorial early-childhood systems as an extension of public education.

I recently came across a definition of strategic philanthropy that I like very much. It’s a 2009 post to the Leadersip and Community blog of the Minneapolis and St. Paul region. In it, contributor Tim Huebsch observes: “Strategic philanthropy works to identify opportunities for leveraging change much greater than the size of the investment — small amounts of money that start making large impacts.”


That said, I also believe that basic charitable giving — the type of philanthropy that seeks to dress the existing wounds in society and prevent them from becoming even more infected — is vital. We must never turn our backs on people who are in need, who are suffering.

But at a time when inequality of opportunity is becoming a structural problem, we would do best to simplify our complicated relationship with money and make it work strategically for a brighter future.

Margaret Norrie McCain is a Canadian philanthropist and former lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick.

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