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If Humans Can Visit the Moon (or Mars), Why Can’t We…

Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Chief Economist Commentary
Buzz Aldrin

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates should not expect Larry Page to sign on to their high profile giving initiative any time soon. Page, CEO of Google and with a net worth of $31.4 billion had some interesting things to say about philanthropy and change while in Vancouver for a TED talk – particularly for charities who are looking to high-income people to contribute more.

As reported in Wired magazine,

“Running through Page’s plans for Google was… a faith that business is the best way to build his version of a better future… a sentiment that Page had apparently voiced before that rather than leave his fortune to a cause, that he might just give it to Elon Musk. Page agreed, calling Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars “to back up humanity” a worthy goal. “That’s a company, and that’s philanthropical,” he said. Especially in technology, we need revolutionary change, not incremental change.

…Page wants to build the future that we all may very well end up living in.”

Do we want what they want?

The perspectives of potentially important donors have significant implications for charities competing for scarce dollars. Do charities and nonprofits desire that “revolutionary change” that visionary entrepreneurs have managed in the private sector? I think so. Elon Musk, with the Tesla electric car and Space-X, is a good example of private sector-led economic/technological transformation and an understandable focus for Page’s comments.

This search for ideas and approaches that go beyond incremental changes is not confined to the private sector. Charities want to explore new approaches to achieve their goals by capturing the imagination of increasingly savvy donors, be they extremely wealthy or more average Canadians.

Making Haiti a G8 country is harder than going to Mars

It would be short-sighted of charities to ignore the examples of visionary entrepreneurs, or simply assume that their fancy strategies won’t work in our sector. On the other hand, Page and others should be aware that our earthly challenges are difficult, that transformative change can be painstakingly slow.

The human factor

Page reasons along the following lines: Elon Musk has been successful in the complicated world of electric cars and space travel. So obviously, similar approaches on our part will deal with an array of problems from poverty alleviation to third world development to the conquest of disease. Right? There is no realization that the answer to the question “if we can put people on the moon or on Mars why can’t we conquer poverty or homelessness?” is actually blindingly simple. It is because dealing with human beings, building consensus and bringing about sustained change is actually quite a lot harder than producing an electric car.

Charities need a balanced attitude to the observations of successful entrepreneurs like Page – open to learn from his experience and innovation and technological expertise, but aware of the complexity of the human challenges that achieving our missions will involve. Incidentally, Elon Musk has endorsed Gates’ and Buffet’s The Giving Pledge, so perhaps Page has simply chosen a more roundabout way of contributing.

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About the Author

Chief Economist for Canada’s Charitable and Nonprofit Sector, Brian Emmett is tasked with measuring the impact of the sector and bringing economic issues facing charities and nonprofits to the forefront of public policy decision makers. Mr. Emmett is an economics graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the University of Essex in England, and has enjoyed a long and distinguished public service career. He was Canada’s first Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in the late 1990s and worked extensively on Canada’s Green Plan. He also served as Vice-President of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in the early 2000s and has been an Assistant Deputy Minister in a number of federal government departments.

The office of the Chief Economist for Canada’s Charitable and Nonprofit Sector is made possible through funding received by The Muttart Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Vancouver Foundation, an anonymous donor, and the PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada Foundation.

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