The absurd arithmetic of big-ticket charity

The absurd arithmetic of big-ticket charity
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First Published: Thu, Dec 02 2010. 06 36 PM IST

Philanthropist: Zuckerberg announced a $100 million donation to public schools in Newark, New Jersey. Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Philanthropist: Zuckerberg announced a $100 million donation to public schools in Newark, New Jersey. Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Updated: Thu, Dec 02 2010. 06 36 PM IST
Recently, someone asked why I wasn’t on Twitter. I am actually. I have an account although I don’t use it, mostly because Twitter intimidates me. It is too fast, too viral, and too abrupt. There is no preamble. People contradict and confront strangers with insouciance. Twitter negates all the civil foreplay that greases polite society and gets right into the act. Messages are short, cryptic, full of hashes, @ signs, retweets, and other obtuse conventions. Yes, yes, I know. I am a Luddite.
I hope all you Twitteratis won’t hate me for saying this, but Twitter, in this sense, is like a one-night stand. You don’t know who you are messing with; you don’t have a photograph to cross-check hunches; the whole thing is a shot in the dark. “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” If you are not careful, you get caught with your pants down—like Salman Khan and Shashi Tharoor. And, then, like all Twitter addicts, you go back for more.
Facebook, on the other hand, is like going on a date and developing a relationship. You have “friends”, not “followers”. People post photographs— of their family, spouses, children, pets. Everything is in the public domain. Nothing is sacred or private.
Philanthropist: Zuckerberg announced a $100 million donation to public schools in Newark, New Jersey. Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Surveys reveal that women outnumber men on Facebook. According to Inside Facebook, women over 55 are the fastest growing demographic on Facebook. Makes sense. If I were divorced and over 50, I’d be posting my photo on Facebook too. I’d be collecting “friends”, with the hope of turning them into something more. Mark Zuckerberg ought to charge for matrimonial connections made on his site.
Zuckerberg, the curly haired founder of Facebook, has been in the news lately for all the right and wrong reasons. He is taking on Google; he donated $100 million (around Rs453 crore) to the New Jersey school system in the aftermath of his unflattering movie portrayal, prompting people to wonder if Zuckerberg’s donation was for real or damage control. I happen to think that it was both real and damage control. The timing was perhaps damage control but the intent was real and he probably would have done it anyway. I think Zuckerberg, like this generation of billionaires, is going to donate large sums of money fairly early in life. With his first $100 million donation, Zuckerberg pre-empted the criticism that a young Bill Gates received about not doing enough philanthropy, till of course, Gates turned around and became the mother of all philanthropists. With his $2 billion donation towards education, and the elegant way that he has set it up, Azim Premji has become the father of all Indian philanthropists. It is irrevocable; it is magnanimous; it both silences the sceptics who say that Premji is doing this to comply with the government’s 25% rule and yet, inadvertently perhaps, rises to Gates’ challenge that all wealthy people donate a significant percentage of their wealth to charity.
My hunch is that Zuckerberg too, like Gates, will become an éminence grise in the world of philanthropy. He and his long-term girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, live very modestly: no fancy cars, homes or expensive hobbies. Zuckerberg is wealthy and has already started giving. How wealthy do you need to be before you begin donating large sums of money? And what constitutes a large donation?
Ask a group of wealthy South Mumbai, Manhattan or Kensington types for a number beyond which they would donate their wealth to charity and the number coalesces around $20 million. “Once my net worth is $20 million, I can breathe a sigh and donate the rest to charity,” says one. This number is calculated by adding every earthly need you might have: business-class trips to India once a year for a family of four; vacations in exotic locales three times a year; ski trips; private school education costing about $25,000 a year per kid; help at home averaging about $600 a week per maid, gardener, chauffeur and other domestic staff; daily pleasures such as eating out at Michelin-starred restaurants, going to the opera; rainy day funds; college tuitions; health expenses which increase as you grow older; money socked away in case you get hit by a bus and are paralysed and therefore need nurses round the clock for 10 years or the rest of your life. You put together your pleasure scenarios, throw in some doomsday events, and tally the whole thing up. Then you calculate how much you’d need to bank in order to get a conservative return on investment that will equal your annual expenses. That’s what your net worth ought to be, at least in the world according to a Garp, Gekko or Gupta.
Come down a few notches and the number varies widely; and indeed, money, as numerous studies show, has no correlation to happiness. My journalism professor, Ray Cave, who was editorial director of Time magazine, told me that $7 million was good enough to be called wealthy. “You need enough money to send flowers as a thank you to the hostess after a great party,” he explained. I haven’t sent flowers but I have written thank-you emails to the hostess after a great party ever since.
Once you decide you have enough money, then you have to decide whether to give and who to give to. Indians donate in large amounts but it is not systematic. We give to our temples and churches; and we help the help who help us. We make ad hoc donations during calamitous events: to the local blood bank in the aftermath of the Mumbai floods and such. But organized philanthropy in India is still in the nascent stage. Many of us are waiting for that magic moment: when nest eggs are egged; when kids are settled; and when we have retired.
I have come to realize one thing. That magic moment that we are all waiting for. It never comes. Like parenting, you just have to muddle along, doing the best you can, all along the way. Eureka will not happen. Instead, it is Carpe Diem. Seize the day.
Next week, I’ll point out one crucial difference between Facebook and the real world.
Shoba Narayan has a highly dysfunctional relationship with both Twitter and Facebook. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Dec 02 2010. 06 36 PM IST