Charity Community Stunned by Buffett's Gift

Billionaire stock picker Warren Buffett has pledged to donate $37 billion to charitable foundations — an unprecedented gift that has stunned officials in the charitable community.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And joining us now, DAY TO DAY'S Karen Grigsby Bates, whose working life includes not just a past in journalism, but also some years spent working for a council of philanthropic organizations where today's got to be very big news. Karen, what exactly is this going to mean? Do you even know yet?

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

That's the interesting thing Alex. I don't think anybody really knows what it's going to mean, because it's never happened before. This is a huge amalgamation of two huge chunks of charitable money, and so people are predictably excited, everybody's speculating and nobody really knows what it's going to mean yet.

CHADWICK: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has concentrated on education and public health, so there's billions and billions of dollars there, but can you compare this to other foundations? We think about the Rockefellers and the Carnegies and great wealth in the past that's gone into philanthropy.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah, that's almost become synonymous with, you know, lots of money. If you just say, oh, you're a Rockefeller, we know pretty much what that means, but actually, I talked to Dwight Burlingame who's the associate director at Indiana University's Center for Philanthropy, and he kind of put it in perspective for us.

Dr. DWIGHT BURLINGAME (Associate Executive Director, The Center on Philanthropy, Indiana University): The potential here, is indeed greater than, actually - when we think about what happened during Carnegie and Rockefeller -that the size of the gift in today's dollars is probably somewhere around four times more than what was allocated by the previous philanthropists at any point.

GRIGSBY BATES: Okay, so four times more than the Rockefeller Foundation. And you look at, this is the foundation that started what's now commonly referred to as the green revolution - the movement for sustainable growth and development in Third World countries that enabled countries that had populations that were literally starving to feed themselves through disease-resistant, drought-resistant kind of plants.

So, we're talking an impact four times greater than that - four times greater than the Carnegie Foundation. Remember, Andrew Carnegie was famous for, among other things, having been the catalyst for the American public library movement. The movement was afoot before he gave the money, but he was really the yeast that kind of boosted it. That means that we can all go in now with our library cards.

CHADWICK: And actually went around and built those libraries in communities all over the country.

GRIGSBY BATES: He did indeed.

CHADWICK: Karen, do you see the possibility of a trend here? Because it's interesting, isn't it, that Warren Buffett didn't give this $37 billion to his own family foundation.

GRIGSBY BATES: It is Alex, but some people in the philanthropic world are very happy about that. They're saying that here's a philanthropist who wants the maximum bang for his philanthropic buck. He's found someone who's doing programs that he approves of, that he admires, that he wants to become active in. And what he's basically said is, I'm going to forego my own building and staff, and let you guys handle things.

CHADWICK: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates. Karen, thank you.

GRIGSBY BATES: You're welcome.

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