Wealthy people often wait until middle age or even retirement to begin thinking in earnest about giving. Of course, this is sometimes necessary—it often takes time to earn wealth before one can consider investing it in worthy causes. But age should not be the determining factor, and philanthropy, no matter when one starts, will yield successes and failures that offer lessons for one’s future giving. Effective philanthropy is not an easy undertaking, and postponing one’s engagement can mean postponing effective giving.
So think about the potential that could be unleashed if the wealthiest started giving earlier in life. Roughly 10 percent of the people on the Forbes 400 list are under 50. Unleashing their money now could prevent today’s urgent problems from becoming larger, more entrenched, and more expensive challenges later. And beginning donors can see the fruits (or the mistakes) of their largesse more quickly and make adjustments.
That is the rationale behind the "giving while living" approach that Chuck Feeney, founder of the organization I head, the Atlantic Philanthropies, has modeled for us. Aside from the accelerated beneficial impact on society, Mr. Feeney is clear about another donor benefit: "You’ll get a lot more satisfaction than if you wait until you’re dead."
Following our donor’s intent, Atlantic will make its last grant in 2016, having invested more than $7.5-billion to improve the lives of people throughout the world. We got our start when Mr. Feeney was 53 and he irrevocably committed his share of Duty Free Shoppers to create our philanthropy.
Using approaches that brought him success in business, Mr. Feeney made "big bets" and calculated risks and often attracted matching investments from governments and other partners. A signature of Mr. Feeney’s giving became the match requirement, and by using it Atlantic’s multimillion-dollar investments have seen billion-dollar leverage, mostly from governments and other donors.
For example, Atlantic’s $350-million grant to the Cornell NYC Tech applied-sciences and engineering campus in New York City is a linchpin of a $2-billion plan that will bolster both applied science and the economy of the city and region, with $23-billion in overall economic activity projected over the next three decades, as well as $1.4-billion in additional tax revenue.
Now is the time for more of the young people who have earned tremendous wealth to think about Mr. Feeney’s example. Warren Buffett reinforced that message last month when he announced before a group of other billionaires that Mr. Feeney had received the Forbes 400 lifetime-achievement award for his philanthropy.
The world is not short of problems, and there are many paths to solutions. "People who have money have an obligation," Mr. Feeney has said. "I wouldn’t say I’m entitled to tell them what to do with it but to use it wisely."
No matter where and why current and potential donors choose to direct their funds, they should seek to maximize the return on their investments. Engaging sooner is likely to result in wiser investments, greater impact, and greater satisfaction.