The boom in the financial services industry from the ’70s onward and the information technology revolution that followed on its heels created a new class of super-rich individuals with few precedents in history. Some of them, though, don’t see wealth as a goal to pursue for its own sake, but are instead applying it as a tool to help those less fortunate than themselves.
Whether this means sending Tents and Camp Gear to areas afflicted by natural disasters, funding efforts that may help the world recover from a global catastrophe, or promoting education in every sense of the word, many have stepped up to make a difference that may be remembered long after their commercial exploits have been forgotten.
The individuals featured here have been chosen not necessarily based on the size of their charitable contributions, but by how they have combined wealth and entrepreneurial ingenuity to try to make the world a better place.
Promoting the “Open Society”
The Open Society is a philosophical concept first described in the early twentieth century. Speaking in general, it describes a system of government and social institutions that are dynamic, transparent and tolerant.
Today, George Soros is perhaps its most effective proponent. The Open Society Foundations founded by him work in 37 countries to promote democratic and liberal values in addition to performing other charitable activities. Unsurprisingly, this often brings them into conflict with authoritarian governments and right wing groups.
Also worth a mention in this regard is Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, who uses his Craigconnects platform to educate the public on issues ranging from consumer rights to electoral abuses.
The Giving Pledge
Theoretically, inheritance tax puts a brake on some families growing ever wealthier over time, but in practice the super-rich have a variety of ways to circumvent this. Some of them, however, have voluntarily decided to give the majority of their wealth to causes they believe in, either before or after death.
Bill Gates has amassed an almost incredible fortune, but his three children stand to inherit “only” a reputed $10 million each. In fact, he and his wife Melinda have already transferred about a third or their wealth to their charitable foundation. Similarly, Warren Buffet’s offspring are unlikely to starve with a $2 billion foundation looking after each of them, but this is only a fraction of the $88 billion this famous investor has managed to amass. So far, over 150 multi-millionaires or billionaires have taken similar pledges.
The Svalbard Seed Bank
If you trust Hollywood, the most likely scenarios for the apocalypse involve either zombies or a giant meteor. The world and the people in it face a far more likely and insidious threat, though: massive die-offs of staple crops.
With much of the world’s food production now reliant on genetically engineered organisms, the theory goes, a single mutation could result in a disease that devastates agriculture all over the world. As one example, nearly all bananas grown in the world are genetically identical, meaning that almost every banana tree in the world could be lost if a microorganism good at attacking it developed. This has actually happened before: during the 1990’s the global shrimp farming industry was almost destroyed by a plague, while half of U.S. maize harvests in the 1970’s were cut down by a fungus. Potato blight in Ireland caused the population to shrink by almost a quarter over four years due to both starvation and mass emigration.
Should something like this happen, it will be essential to have access to similar plant species that can be cross-bred with crop plants to improve immunity. This is where the Svalbard seed bank comes in: dug over a hundred meters into the rock of an island inside the Arctic circle, it houses seeds from over a million different plants and is expected to survive anything up to and including a nuclear war. Although owned by the Norwegian government, much of its funding comes from charities such as the Gates and Moore foundations.