by Paul Harris
May 31, 2009
Harris in New York
reports on the
small, elite group
who met recently
It is the most elite club in the world.
Ordinary people need not
apply. Indeed there is no way to ask to join. You simply have to be
very, very rich and very, very 'generous'... on a global scale.
This is the
Good Club, the name given to the tiny global
elite of billionaire philanthropists who recently held their first
and highly secretive meeting in the heart of New York City.
The names of some of the members are familiar figures:
But there are others,
business giants Eli
and Edythe Broad, who are equally wealthy but less well known.
All told, its members are
The meeting - called by Gates, Buffett and Rockefeller - was held in
response to the global economic downturn and the numerous health and
environmental crises that are plaguing the globe. It was, in some
ways, a summit to save the world.
No wonder that when news of the secret meeting leaked, via the
seemingly unusual source of an Irish-American website, it sent shock
waves through the worlds of philanthropy, development aid and even
"It is really
unprecedented. It is the first time a group of donors of this
level of wealth has met like that behind closed doors in what is
in essence a billionaires' club," said Ian Wilhelm, senior
writer at the Chronicle of Philanthropy magazine.
The existence of the Good
Club has struck many as a two-edged sword.
On one hand, they
represent a new golden age of philanthropy, harking back to the
early 20th century when the likes of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and
Carnegie became famous for their good works.
Yet the reach and power
of the Good Club are truly new. Its members control vast wealth -
and with that wealth comes huge power that could reshape nations
according to their will.
Few doubt the good intentions of Gates and
Winfrey and their kind. They have already 'improved' the lives of
millions of poor people across the developing world.
But can the
richest people on earth actually 'save' the planet?
The President's House of Rockefeller University is on the Upper East
Side of Manhattan. The university's private campus, full of lush
green trees, lies behind guarded entrances and a metal fence. It
overlooks the East River, only a few blocks away from
It was here, at 3pm on 5 May (2009), that the Good Club gathered.
university's chancellor, Sir Paul Nurse, was out of town but, at the
request of David Rockefeller, had allowed the club to meet at his
plush official residence.
The president's house is frequently used
for university events, but rarely can it have played host to such a
"The fact that they pulled this off, meeting in
the middle of New York City, is just absolutely amazing," said Niall
O'Dowd, an Irish journalist who broke the story on the website irishcentral.com.
For six hours, the assembled billionaires discussed the
facing the world.
Each was allowed to speak for 15 minutes.
topics focused on education, emergency relief, government reform,
the expected depth of the economic crisis and global health issues
such as overpopulation and disease.
One of the themes was new ways
to get ordinary people to donate small amounts to global issues.
Sources say Gates was the most impressive speaker, while Turner was
the most outspoken.
"He tried to dominate, which I think annoyed
some of the others," said one source.
Winfrey, meanwhile, was said
to have been in a contemplative, listening mood.
That the group should have met at all is indicative of the radical
ways in which philanthropy has changed over the past two decades.
The main force behind that change is Gates and his decision to
donate almost all his fortune to 'bettering' the world...
great philanthropists of former ages, Gates is young enough and
active enough to take a full hands-on role in his philanthropy and
craft it after his own ideas.
That example has been followed by
others, most notably Soros, Turner and Buffett. Indeed, this new
form of philanthropy, where retired elite businessmen try to change
the world, has even been dubbed,
"Billanthropy" after Gates.
description is "philanthro-capitalism".
Yet the implications of the development of
It was fitting that the Good Club was meeting near the UN.
The club members' extreme wealth makes it as powerful as some of the
nations with seats inside that august chamber.
Proponents of philanthro-capitalism would argue that they are also
more effective in doing good for ordinary people. Indeed the club's
members have given away about $70bn in the past 12 years.
far beyond what many individual countries can afford to do with
their own social policies and aid budgets.
"They have assets that rival the social spending budgets of many
countries," said Professor Paul Schervish, director of Boston
College's Centre on Wealth and Philanthropy.
There is little doubt that members of the Good Club have done
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with a current
endowment of more than $30bn, is the biggest philanthropic
organization ever. Just one of its projects, the Global Alliance for
Vaccines and Immunization, is estimated by
the WHO to have prevented
3.4 million deaths in just eight years.
Soros Foundation has done valuable work setting up democratic
institutions and independent media across the former Soviet bloc.
These 'titans' of philanthropy have also started a trend among the
slightly less wealthy.
While Gates's and Soros's efforts bestride
the world, major philanthropists have emerged in specific regions
like India or Latin America funding their own pet ideas and
Gayle Peterson, co-founder of
Philanthropic Services, recently gave advice to a businessman who
wanted to set up a foundation to give away $280m annually in
"He told us: I want to be just like Bill Gates,"
But there is a potential downside to the growth of these "über
donors", especially if the whims of individuals start to take
precedence over the expertise of professionals.
The strange truth is that giving away billions of dollars is
difficult and fraught with risk.
There can be waste, mismanagement
and poor investment.
At the same time it can actually do harm.
you are putting enormous amounts of money into a community that
can't cope with it, then you can implode that community," Peterson
Others are even more outspoken at the growing dominance of a tiny
handful of billionaires in the development sector.
"The problem with
any Good Club is that all the people might not be 'good'.
least not 'good' in universal definitions," said Louise Uwacu, the
Rwandan-born founder of the Canadian education charity Positivision.
There is also the issue of accountability.
Even the most repressive
of national governments is on some level beholden to its own people,
or has the capacity to change and reform under popular pressure.
who votes for the Good Club?
Such skeptical sentiments might spring from the Good Club's decision
to meet in such secrecy in New York. In many ways that was
All its members are sensitive about privacy because
of their unique mixes of fame and wealth.
The covert nature of the
discussion also allowed them to speak freely about sensitive issues.
"I think they just wanted to be able to be candid. The secrecy
allowed that," said Wilhelm.
But some people are crying conspiracy.
The cloak-and-dagger aspect
of the meeting has prompted some to accuse the Good Club of being a
Bilderberg Group for philanthropy, with an equally,
agenda of global power politics...
That idea has particular power on
the christian right of America, which has reacted angrily to the
idea that the club discussed birth control and overpopulation.
Experts in the philanthropy field think that this negative image can
be countered by more openness for future Good Club meetings.
"If they do hold more meetings, and every indication is that they
will, I think people would want them to be more public. After all,
they can make decisions that affect millions of peoples' lives,"
That is true...
If the members of the Good Club wish to wield their
undoubted power, they may have to get used to the idea of doing it
tradition of great donors
co-founder of Microsoft is the biggest philanthropist the world
has ever seen.
Through the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation, he controls more than $30bn in assets -
not bad for a computer geek from Seattle.
Often ranked as the
world's richest man, he has donated virtually his entire fortune
to philanthropy, focusing on combating diseases in the
As well as
being the father of the US car industry and the inventor of the
modern production line, Ford has been a major force in
He made a vast
fortune and left virtually all of it to the Ford Foundation,
which by 2007 had more than $13bn in assets.
Hungarian-born Soros is a hugely successful US currency
speculator and financier.
But he is also well
known for his philanthropic works. Focusing on political
democratization and creating an independent media, he has funded
projects mainly in the former Soviet republics.
A political liberal,
he is also a funder of the Centre for American Progress.
Scottish-born American industrialist made a huge fortune in
steel and industry at the end of the 19th century.
the rest of his life to philanthropy, especially education,
founding libraries, museums and universities in Britain and
He wrote of the responsibilities of the wealthy in two
books, Triumphant Democracy and the Gospel of Wealth.
whose name became a byword for unimaginable wealth made his
fortune in oil.
Often regarded as the
richest person in history, Rockefeller spent the last 40 years
of his life in effective retirement, setting up various
foundations and funding philanthropic causes.
His special interests
were in the fields of science and medicine.