Why Tech's Richest People Give Money Away (And How You Can Too)

Bill Gates is famous for being the founder of Microsoft, but arguably he should be even more famous for his philanthropic work. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given more than $US28 billion to projects and research designed to help the poor and needy since 2000. This is why Gates and his fellow cash-loaded geeks do it -- and why you should too.

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Gates explained his reasons for his philanthropic approach in an appearance on the ABC's Q&A a few years ago:

You know, when you're lucky enough to have substantial wealth, what are the possibilities? You can build a pyramid. You can have, you know, 400 people fan you. There's kind of a limit to consumption and so then you have to say, what do you feel? What are you affiliated to? What really counts for you? If you feel like you're a citizen of the world and you want to help all of humanity, then you think, 'Where is the greatest injustice?'

Having a focus and a sense of perspective is important. In a recent Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, Gates noted that he wasn't inclined to fund research into more out-there concepts like immortality when so many basic issues remain unresolved:

It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.

While Gates is the best-known example of a wealthy tech philanthropist, he's certainly not the only one. Oracle founder Larry Ellison is also a prominent philanthropist and, like Gates, has signed up to the Giving Pledge, a scheme backed by US billionaire Warren Buffet which encourages the wealthy to commit to giving away the majority of their wealth. Another supporter? Star Wars creator George Lucas.

Why It Matters

You don't have to be a billionaire to give to charitable or philanthropic causes. Not only does making donations assist in alleviating real-world suffering, it also makes us more human. As Bill & Melinda Gates noted in their 2015 letter on philanthropy:

There is overwhelming evidence that people care about others who are suffering -- when they can see the suffering. Just think of the global outpouring of support whenever a devastating tsunami or earthquake makes the news. The problem is that ongoing tragedies like deadly diseases and poverty don't make the news. They're invisible to many of us. And so the caring of millions of people goes untapped.

That's true whether you're donating $5, five hours of your time, or a massive sum of money. If you're successful on any level, then taking that approach (and talking about it) can certainly have a much greater influence. Gates told Q&A this happened when he talked to sceptical politicians:

These are things where I've taken, you know, the money that I've earned and decided to get behind them. And so whenever you have a management mentality, hearing from a business-type person why they think this is the very best way to spend money, I think, you know, a little bit you realise, hey, it's not soft thinking, it's not just that these are sad causes, it's because of the real change.

One important point is to not spread your efforts too widely. Gates advocates learning about one area in depth, rather than spreading yourself amongst numerous causes:

There are a lot of great causes. It is important not to be frozen trying to pick since it is important to specialize and really learn the area you are trying to help. We picked health inequity as our global thing and educational inequity as our national thing and most of our projects fit into these areas. Part of the beauty of philanthropy is the diversity of causes and approaches that get tried. It is far more risk oriented than government or private sector spending which makes it special when it is done right.

One common counter-argument against giving away most of your wealth is that people want to leave money to their offspring. While that's understandable, Gates suggests that it isn't essential:

I do think that having kids receive large sums of wealth actually has been more negative for them than positive, particularly if their friends think that, they think that. You know, I think a kid should grow up knowing that they are going to have to make their own way in terms of finding work and that, you know, they won't be giving out sums of money or just have, you know, all the money they will need, you know, and so far that philosophy has worked very well.

If you do want to take a selfish view, however, remember this simple fact: Donations to registered charities are tax-deductible.

Reminder: For specific tax advice relating to your individual situation, consult a registered professional.


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