Corporate buyout king Henry Kravis is donating $100 million to Columbia's Business School, which will help the school add 450,000 square feet of space. Which raises an interesting point about these types of donations: they are loathsome.
We'd like to propose a very simple and hopefully uncontroversial principle for the very rich: Massive donations should be given in such a way that they do as much as possible to solve the most pressing problems. Indeed, all donations should be given this way, but it's much easier to visualize the impact when we're talking about $100 million, instead of your $10 Red Cross donation for Haitian earthquake relief.
The wealthy are different from you and me. They have more money. And setting aside all the resentment that causes in us, the good thing about it is that it enables them to do a massive amount of good for the world. Bill Gates' foundation has taken a very commonsensical and scientific approach to its charity, and by doing so it's been able to make very measurable strides towards reducing the misery of many of people in the world—saving thousands from disease, providing small but real paths out of poverty, and helping to improve education for those who need it the most. Dozens of other billionaires—many of whom are very smart people!—have recognized the ethical common sense of this approach, and have pledged their support as well.
The idea is that the more money you have, the more responsibility you have. As a billionaire, you know for a fact that you have the economic power to literally save thousands upon thousands of lives, and to markedly improve the lives of many times that number of people. That knowledge is—and should be—a bit of a burden. One should feel a bit less free to burn all their money on ego-boosting, self-aggrandizing monuments to oneself, knowing that that money could be put to use literally saving the lives of many who would otherwise die, or live in misery.
The point is, elite universities are terrible choices for huge donations. Supporting education in America is a worthy cause; but there are many, many more effective ways to help the masses than giving millions to Ivy League schools. No matter what those schools' endowment officers tell you, they do not really "need" that money, not in the same way that, for example, clinics in sub-Saharan Africa need it. Furthermore, most rich people do not give money to fancy schools out of a desire to improve education in America. According to academic research, hey give in order to make it easier for their own children to get into those schools. Or, in the case of people like Kravis, they give in order to have a building named for themselves at their alma mater, so that the legacy of their Gilded Age travails may be spread to generation upon generation of bored business school student.
To donate $100 million to satisfy one's own ego—instead of to help people that desperately need it—is a moral crime. We're all responsible for helping others; and we're all, to some extent, guilty of moral failure in the way we spend and donate our own money. But for the very rich, the consequences are very serious.
Columbia will survive without Henry Kravis' money. So will Yale, and Harvard, and Princeton. For the poorest and unluckiest people in the world, the same can't necessarily be said. Try UNICEF, or Oxfam, or The Red Cross, or Doctors Without Borders, Henry Kravis. Your karma will thank you for it.