Friday, September 3, 2010

Inspired and Inspiring Individuals

I was fortunate to travel to Bogota and Rio de Janeiro a couple of months ago and on my way back from Rio, I sat on the plane next to a guy named Alberto with whom I struck a conversation that turned out to be extremely interesting. Alberto who is an architect by background and designs multimedia and pyromusical events has a passion for Tanzania and decided to start his own organization, Bricks for Life, that has already funded the construction of a library in rural Tanzania and is helping local youth acquire valuable professional skills, using architecture as an instrument for learning (i.e. brick-making, masonry, carpentry, eco-orchard, eco-garden, water harvesting projects, solar power/water heating projects, etc.).

It is a sign of our times that people like Alberto - whatever their means - take matters in their own hands and try to solve the problems that they particularly care about. I think we have a generation of Fixers here. They happen to be individualistic and entrepreneurial too. Here goes their thinking, “why defer to others hoping that they will solve a problem that bothers me”? And also, “I can’t see anyone that does this – or does this right, so I may as well do it myself”.

Bill Gates - and to a lesser extent Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll - have been the most prominent figures of that generation of Fixers. Basically they walked away from the old habits of traditional philanthropy, which I would characterize as active / passive (active because traditional philanthropists would donate money but passive because they also generally accepted the context and resulting agenda of the sector that they got involved into), to rather be “active / active” social investors as they prefer to call themselves.

Gates’ work in global health is the best example of this new way of doing things. What he did was simply to change the global health agenda. He did so by committing vast amounts of money to fight tropical diseases like malaria which everyone had deemed urgent to cure for years but yet that remained under-funded.

Gates and his friends are not afraid to impose their own agenda for an entire sector despite being totally new to it. This is the kind of power and influence that history associates to 19th century philanthropists like Carnegie or Rockefeller.

The Giving Pledge initiated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett that prompted 40 billionaires to commit part of their wealth to philanthropic causes drew a lot of attention this summer. It is great that Gates and Buffett are raising the bar and are not shy to look toward their peers and say, how about you guys, what do you do with your money?

But the generation of Fixers to whom Gates, Omidyar, Skoll - and Alberto - belong has something else than money in common, namely their drive to make things better.

You don’t have to have money to be one of those Fixers. I am always amazed when I watch Extreme Makeover Home Edition that features ordinary individuals and families with average (or below average) incomes who often make a tremendous difference in their communities through volunteering or some meagerly paid socially-valuable work. They are certainly not well off - and yet they also took matters in their own hands and decided to make a change.

Changing the agenda of an entire sector like global health or homelessness is probably reserved for those with vast amounts of capital at their disposal because money will move the other actors in that particular field and/or draw new ones.

But evidence shows that you don’t need to be a multi-millionaire to be a Fixer and a Change Maker. I am happy that our era counts with Alberto and others who are taking concrete actions to make this world a better place.

No comments:

Post a Comment