2007 – Giving something back
One of my fondest memories from childhood is the weekly
visit with my mother to the local lending library. Over
the door, etched in stone, was the name Andrew Carnegie.
It was much later that I discovered that Carnegie, one
of the greatest philanthropists the world has known, had
spent the latter part of his life dispersing his vast fortune
accumulated in the Carnegie Steel company.
Now the British billionaire Sir Tom Hunter has announced
that he plans to do the same. He aims to invest his business
building skills in to creating purposeful projects, often
helping those in poorer parts of the world.
He and his wife, Lady Marion Hunter, he said last week,
planned to leave the world as they entered it, “pretty
much with nothing.”
Sir Tom’s thinking matches closely, not only that
of Carnegie but that of Warren Buffet, another self-made
billionaire who last year committed most of his wealth to
charity, giving about $30bn to the Bill and Melinda Gates
All three men were concerned to provide sensibly for their
immediate families, the idea being, as Mr Buffet put it,
to leave them enough that they can do something with their
lives, but not so much that they can do nothing.
Carnegie had been dismayed at the desultory lifestyles
adopted by the children of some of his contemporaries and
wanted to avoid any repetition in his own family. This is
a recurring theme in the protestant work ethic that extends
now to the middle classes.
Preparing young people to make a difference in this world
is one of the greatest gifts any generation can bestow upon
But striking the right balance is difficult. How can you
replicate the conditions that shaped your own approach to
work within the comfortable lifestyles enjoyed by today’s
How many parents tell their children “you have it
too easy these days?” It’s tempting to lecture
them about getting up for work on cold mornings with frost
on the inside of the bedroom window. But I heard those same
stories from my parents and I’m not sure it made much
difference to me.
Brian Souter, another self-made multi-millionaire and chief
executive of Stagecoach, the bus and train operating company,
preaches much the same home-spun philosophy to his own young
family. He espouses a value-for-money approach founded on
efficient work practices, doing a good job and accounting
for every penny spent and earned, what, in a newspaper interview
this week he calls “the products of aspiring working
But Mr Souter’s children are no more working class
than mine. Besides, there are different issues for young
people today. While it might be easier for young people
to borrow a family car, buying a first home is a much tougher
proposition than it was for their parents. Beyond that,
today there are debts associated with university education
that must be settled as people begin to earn. When I started
work at least, financially, I started with a clean slate.
So many companies incorporate degree expectations in to
jobs these days that young people have little option but
to invest in their education. Across the industrialised
world parents have decided that education is the key to
a financially secure future for their children.
Such thinking is as sound today as it was in Carnegie’s
time when his father, a hand loom weaver, and his uncle,
a grocer, did what they could to ensure that the family
was well read.
A concentration on education is important. But theory-based
school and college education in a system that has become
obsessed with exam results can only go so far and too often
creates a “grading mentality” that feeds through
in to the workplace.
One of the schemes introduced by the Hunter Foundation,
the charity established by Sir Tom and his wife, is partnered
with the Scottish Executive to encourage better teaching
of business skills and entrepreneurship in Scottish schools.
Among the pilot programmes is one building leadership skills
among head teachers.
Just as Carnegie made a list of good causes, prioritising
institutions such as libraries and schools, the Hunter Foundation
has established certain principles designed to help people
make a success of themselves whatever their background.
“There are basic human rights no person should be
denied and the chance to succeed must be one of those rights,”
it says on its website.* “We cannot go on funding
high dependency interventions around the world. Our view
is a simple one – equip everyone with the ability
to succeed and the conditions in which they can apply that
ability. Offer fishing rods not fish.”
Another policy is to engage in partnerships with agencies
that have already demonstrated a sound understanding of
issues on the ground in various parts of the developing
world. The idea is to apply investment principles to philanthropy,
rather than simply giving money away.
One certainty for all such approaches is that it is almost
as difficult to make useful charitable investments as it
is to accumulate wealth in the first place. Outcomes from
charitable work are notoriously difficult to measure and
might not become apparent for decades.
How, for example, can you measure the impact of Carnegie’s
libraries? More than 2,500 were built, most of them in the
US, although 660 were built in the UK and Ireland. All were
founded on the principle that they should extend free book
lending to all. This was particularly important in the US
where, without Carnegie’s intervention, it would have
been more difficult to establish the principle of free borrowing.
Today there is an equally urgent need to establish free
wireless internet access for all who need it so that the
same principles may apply. I can see why so many airports
and hotels have created “paid for” services,
but the dissemination of knowledge is too important - for
business too in the long run – to apply a fee-paying
model in every circumstance.
One of the strongest lessons from fortunes made on the
back of hard work among those who come from modest backgrounds
is that money is a tool for getting things done, something
to be valued as a resource, not squandered in flamboyant
behaviour and certainly not to be worshiped. “No idol
is more debasing than the worship of money,” said
The Hunter Foundation, like others in the US, is showing
how wealth, carefully managed and directed, can be put to
better uses than the self-aggrandising collection of ever
more ostentatious possessions. It’s difficult to carp
about fat cat pay when those who earn great wealth work
just as diligently to ensure that it is put to good use.
See also my blog article: craigslist-and-carnegie
A different view (not one I share) here: