When it comes to giving, some people stop at nothing. Take Warren Buffett, who has pledged gradually to donate 85 per cent of his Berkshire Hathaway stock to charitable foundations.
This is unusually generous in more ways than one. It arguably marks the largest charitable commitment yet, worth about $37bn at current prices. Moreover, Mr Buffett will not even be using a vehicle bearing his name for the bulk of his largesse. Instead, stock worth $31bn today will go to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, more than doubling its size.
Such modesty is noble, but is it also wise? Mr Buffett is certainly right that giving money away is at least as hard as accumulating it. Finding people with the right skills for the task and letting them get on with it is precisely the approach that has served him so well at Berkshire. The Gates foundation can also claim some early successes in its efforts to orchestrate support for fighting diseases, although its record in education has proved a little less impressive.
But as Mr Buffett has often pointed out, there are disadvantages as well as benefits from size. The Gates foundation is likely to gain an even larger role in putting global problems on the agenda. But it may also find it harder to identify worthwhile projects without breeding dependency or simply replacing government funds.
For now, the foundation is remarkably lean, with just 241 employees on its payroll. That is largely thanks to teaming up with non-profit organisations and governments. However, a bigger funding pool may make it even harder to get honest, impartial feedback. That is always a thorny problem for long-term aid projects and is a particular risk when only a few donors become the dominant source of funding in specific areas. In the longer term, a bit of competition, rather than pooling resources in megafoundations, may well prove the right way to keep recipients on their toes.
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