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Published: Tuesday, 7/4/2006

Giving back, big time

"GEE, Mr. Buffett, as long as you're giving away most of your money, couldn't you spare just a little - say a couple of million - for me?"

That plaintive question undoubtedly went through the minds of many Americans as they pondered the news that investment guru Warren Buffett plans to donate more than 80 percent of his considerable holdings to - surprise! - the philanthropic foundation headed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the unrivaled Big Wheel of Fortune.

The other question, obviously, is why the second-richest human being on the planet would want to give up much of his gold to the guy who is far and away the richest. The answer, at least in part: Mr. Buffett, 75, has no inclination to try to take it with him when he goes off to, well, you know, the Great Stock Exchange in the Sky.

The self-made man who built Berkshire Hathaway into a business colossus makes no secret of what it was that motivated him to begin moving his mountain of money, an estimated $44 billion, toward charitable giving: it was the death of his wife, Susan, who passed away from cancer two years ago.

Mr. Buffett also told Fortune magazine, which annually places Mr. Gates and him at Numbers 1 and 2 on its lists of wealthiest individuals in the nation and world, that he has an altruistic motive: "We agree with Andrew Carnegie, who said that huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society."

Whatever the reason, this unprecedented act of public generosity puts Mr. Buffett at the top of the list of big names in this nation's philanthropic history, names such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Mellon. For example, Carnegie gave away $380 million, worth about $7.6 billion in today's dollars, the Washington Post noted.

Mr. Buffett likened his decision to transfer 10 million Berkshire Hathaway shares worth $30.7 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over a period of years to a strategic move akin to letting Tiger Woods take his place in a crucial golf match. In other words, there are no losers here because the money will help support causes important to him.

Mr. Gates, the software entrepreneur whose personal fortune is estimated at $46.5 billion, has shown that he knows how to give away his money to accomplish the most good. He has already transferred some $30 billion to his foundation, which donates to a variety of causes involving education and global health.

Mr. Buffett also plans to give another $7 billion or so to four other foundations run by his children but rejected leaving the bulk of the fortune in the hands of his heirs.

The children, he said, have had all the advantages and "I would say it's neither right nor rational to be flooding them with money."

A lot of people could think of a lot of uses for the Buffett billions, but the logical and big-hearted decision to devote the money to philanthropic works will ensure that his legacy will be a gift that keeps on giving back to society long after he's gone.



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