Philanthropy comes in two flavors. One is where you make a lot of money doing whatever it is that you do, and then spend a large part of it in directly helping other people. Bill Gates is a philanthropist of this kind. The second kind is where you collect money from a large number of people and put it to good use. Organizational charities do philanthropy of this kind. So do spiritual leaders, like the god men of India.
The other day, I was watching Bill Gates on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — my favorite TV show. Gates touched upon his plans to spend billions of his own dollars on vaccines, education and other humanitarian projects through his foundation. Clearly passionate about his philanthropic efforts, Gates showed a milder side that wasn’t visible ten years ago during the corporate battles of the Microsoft kind.
Perhaps Gates is a naturally passionate guy, whether he is writing tiny operating systems that would fit in floppies or behemoth ones that would fit nowhere, whether in technical innovation or marketing wizardry, whether greedily amassing billions or, as now, spending it kindly. But attributing his philanthropy to his natural passion for everything he does is unfair, and diminishes its value. After all, he could have been spending (or at least, trying to spend) his money on himself just as passionately. That’s why I think of him as a modern-day Robin Hood, despite my geeky dislike for anything Microsoft-related, which is perhaps only a geek covenant now, rather than a practical ideology.
Robin Hood’s romantic idea of stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor had a critical flaw. He was an outlaw. The trouble with being an outlaw is that the full might of the legal system can be brought to bear on you quite independently of the morality of your activity. In Gate’s case, it would be like embezzling billions from Microsoft coffers and distributing it to the homeless, for instance. What he did, instead, was to make money in the stock market (which, of course, is embezzlement of a legal kind) and then give it to the poor. In other words, he stayed within the system and found a way to turn it around to his humanitarian purpose. If that is what he wanted to all along, kudos to him!
But what is this “system” that we have to work from within? That’s an involved topic for another day. Stay tuned!