Fifteen years ago, John Mackey made waves for asking the question, “Who has done more good for the planet, Mother Teresa or Bill Gates?” Mackey, the CEO of the high-end grocery store Whole Foods, promptly answered his own question by saying, “No contest – Gates has helped far more people.” In 2003, that declaration rubbed some people the wrong way.
Today, I’m guessing more people would agree with him than they did in 2003. Andrew Carnegie proved that point 100 years earlier.
Mother Teresa (Source: Biography.com); Bill and Melinda Gates (Source: CNBC.com)
Mother Teresa, also known as St. Teresa of Calcutta, spent a lifetime serving the poor in the slums of that city. Though not without controversy, she was beloved both inside and outside of her Roman Catholic religion. Tending to the poor, sick, and hungry, she must have helped many thousands of people during her lifetime and inspired others along the way. And in the early 2000’s Bill Gates was the richest person in the world, wealth which he accumulated by founding and leading Microsoft. But since 2006, Gates has been focused primarily on his charitable activities through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has had a huge impact on health, education, and social services around the world.
In the fifteen years since Mackey’s quote, income disparity has become even more acute. The gap between rich and poor in the United States and in many other countries is greater than it has been in generations. With the decline of the middle class, there are more poor people today than there were in 2003. And rich people have become much richer.
When times are tough for a lot of people, charity and philanthropy become even more important.
Sources: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (top); Our World in Data (bottom).
“The man who dies rich dies in disgrace.” – Andrew Carnegie
How has time changed peoples’ views towards philanthropy, which is what we call it when rich people give away money for good causes? As rich became ultra-rich and as the world has developed a deeper need for their help, philanthropy has taken on a larger role. The Gates Foundation has continued helping people through its work and it has been joined by other foundations and high net worth individuals. Ford, Hewlett and Packard, Wellcome, Kellogg, Bosch, Premji…these are not only names of the barons of industry and technology; foundations that bear these names have given away billions of dollars to worthy causes.
Society celebrates wealth as a cardinal achievement in today’s world. Getting rich is an end in itself. When it comes time for a rich person to give away some (much, nearly all) of his/her money, it must be rewarding to see the good that can accomplish. And as the ultra-rich develop bank accounts that dwarf the economies of small nations, perhaps the world has become more dependent than ever before on philanthropists: to build homes, fight diseases, and bring computers to classrooms.
But 100 years before John Mackey’s quote, philanthropy had just as big a place in the world. The Industrial Revolution had made a new class of industrialists wealthy and there was a massive divide between rich and poor. One could argue that charity had an even stronger influence at that time. As now, philanthropists a century ago spent money on the public good that many governments did not have, feeding and educating people who would not otherwise have had the same chance.
A Carnegie library near Pittsburgh, c. 1900. Source: Library of Congress.
As an example, let’s recall the work of Andrew Carnegie. In some ways, his life paralleled that of Bill Gates a century later. Carnegie and Gates were each considered the richest men in the world at one time. Both of them made a ton of money in a business that they positioned at the center of a rapidly changing economy (Carnegie with steel for the Industrial Revolution and Gates with operating software for the Information Revolution). And both walked away from those empires at a relatively young age to focus on giving away their vast sums of wealth to charitable endeavors, founding two of the greatest philanthropic organizations in history.
Much has been written about Gates’ impact over the last two decades or so. For the remainder of this post, I’d like to focus on a part of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic legacy. Though his foundation had funded many other kinds of work, we can see his clear impact on the world simply by looking at the Carnegie libraries. It’s hard to imagine (though not at all impossible) that one single individual could impact more people in a positive way.
Carnegie financed the construction of thousands of free, public libraries. The libraries were a perfect fit for Carnegie’s view that philanthropy should not just give away money, but it should exist “to help those who help themselves.” The influence of Carnegie libraries was so massive that Carnegie’s work probably answered John Mackey’s question a century before he asked it. Carnegie’s libraries have changed millions of lives.
Carnegie at his desk. Public domain.
The first Carnegie libraries were built in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was Andrew Carnegie’s base. In the United States, where Carnegie made his fortune, he paid for 1,689 libraries to be built. Others were added in the region of Scotland where Carnegie was born. Over time, his foundation funded many more libraries in other countries around the world. 660 libraries were built in the United Kingdom and Ireland, 125 were built in Canada, and others were added in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Malaysia, Mauritius, Fiji, and parts of the Caribbean.
Belgrade University Library in Serbia, financed by Carnegie. Creative Commons via Wikipedia by Zoran Cvetkovic.
Between 1883 and 1929, Carnegie’s money built 2,509 libraries. After that, since many more public libraries were built, there is no record of how many were Carnegie-sponsored buildings. But regardless of the actual number, millions of people from all classes of society had free access to books and other resources. According to Paul Dickson, author of The Library in America, as quoted by National Public Radio (NPR), these libraries had an impact not only on literacy, education, and the dissemination of knowledge; some of these buildings themselves were iconic structures that influenced other public buildings. For example, the Carnegie library built in 1909 in Washington, D.C., was known as the “intellectual bread line” for people during the Great Depression: a place they could go to feed their minds. But it also was a grand marble edifice that probably influenced many of the monumental marble and limestone government buildings that were built later.
Remarkably, some 800 of Carnegie’s libraries are still in use in the United States with another 350 re-purposed into cultural centers, office buildings, or other uses. Adjusted for inflation, Andrew Carnegie spent some $1.3 billion on public libraries in the United States, 70 percent of these buildings being built in small towns.
Mirror Lake Library in St. Petersburg, Florida, financed by Carnegie. Creative Commons via Wikipedia by ebyabe.
These libraries gave rise to an “expectation in communities across the country—if you didn’t have a library, somehow you were not supporting culture," according to Wayne Wiegand, author of a forthcoming history of public libraries, tentatively titled Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, quoted by NPR. How many millions of people learned to read, connected with heroes and heroines, discovered new worlds beyond their own small towns, and found answers to their questions in those libraries? Today, we have the Internet, but for previous generations, a library was all they had. It can be life-changing.
Does it really matter whether Mother Teresa or Bill Gates has helped more people or whether Andrew Carnegie did so a century earlier? Of course not. None of them were trying to win a race (I hope). Each of these people will long be remembered for what they did for others in need, but the focus of charity and philanthropy is on helping others, not on being famous for it. Also, let us not forget how many people have been inspired to help out in their own smaller ways as well. Most volunteers and small donors will not receive the credit that more famous people do, though everyone is entitled to a selfie.
Top and bottom image are public domain from Pixabay. Others credited in the text. Title is from a quote by John Wesley.