Buffett meets Rothschild: clash of giving cultures?


Michael Alberg-Seberich


Michael Alberg-Seberich

The scene is one to remember in the world of philanthropy: Warren Buffett and Ariane de Rothschild meet for an interview about philanthropy. German filmmakers Gisela Baur and Ralph Gladitz document this meeting of two worlds. An intriguing moment in the conversation is when Mr Buffett tells Mrs de Rothschild, ‘I do not believe in dynasties’. He points out how important equal opportunities in a society are. Ariane de Rothschild replies by describing how the big challenge for her is to live up to the expectations of past generations. She underlines that philanthropy is possible only when the family business is successful. The banker in her adds that the financial crisis has shown her that we have to consider a more sustainable, holistic form of capitalism. We need to bring together doing good and earning money.

Besides this the images speak for themselves: Omaha – where the conversation takes place – meets Paris; root beer float meets French cuisine; self-made man meets eighth generation family business. The conversation of the two donors symbolizes many differences in giving between the USA and continental Europe. It shows how culture still influences the way people give in various parts of the world.

But the two have more in common than we may think. The interview shows that some of these differences are based on beliefs and others are more symbolic. Warren Buffett and Ariane de Rothschild both underline, for instance, their strong belief in family as the basis of their value sets.

This is the closing scene of the 75-minute-long 2012 documentary Das Milliardenversprechen/The Giving Pledge, broadcast for the first time on German/French public TV channel ARTE on 10 April. (Click here to watch it – available in German and French.)

The film consists of interviews with Warren Buffett; Bill and Melinda Gates; international investor, art collector and think-tank founder Nicolas Berggruen – the only European to have signed the Giving Pledge; eighth-generation banker Ariane de Rothschild; software giant SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner, who is an engaged donor in the field of university education; and Peter Krämer, a Hamburg-based shipping company owner and a major donor in UNICEF’s ‘Schools for Africa’ initiative.

The stories of these philanthropists are all very different. They contrast the outspoken way of giving and the public support for this in the US with the often ‘apolitical’, silent giving in Europe. Ariane de Rothschild says in one scene of the film that there is not really open appreciation of donors in Europe.

The filmmakers contrast the various roles the interviewees assign to the state. Listening to this very carefully, you are surprised how similar the wording on this matter is on both sides of the Atlantic but how differently it is implemented on the ground. Peter Krämer makes the point that he does not believe in the Giving Pledge because in a democracy in the end the citizens should decide where money is invested. On the other hand, the Gates point out how important it is in their international work to collaborate also with governments.

These attitudes are set in the context of the financial crisis, the Occupy movement and an interview with a Massachusetts banker (a friend of Warren Buffett’s) who lost her job. In this situation the documentary seems to suggest that the crisis of capitalism is worse in the US. This is why donors are so active. It is too bad that the film does not throw the same light on Europe since the challenges are the same, though the solutions, again, may be different.

The documentary shows many cracks in the prevailing attitudes towards giving in Europe and North America. Peter Krämer, for example, talks very openly about his giving. He even supported the giving campaign ‘Gib Deinen Zehnten’ in the city of Hamburg last year – not shown in the film.

The film indicates some of the levers of change that these philanthropists use. Hasso Plattner has set up a software engineering and design thinking school at the University of Potsdam. Nicolas Berggruen has set up a think-tank and is trying to convene former political leaders to explore solutions for societal challenges. The Rothschild family is exploring new ways of giving and, for instance, uses (impact) investing in social enterprises in France to create a social and financial return. Bill and Melinda Gates talk about their involvement in health care and the need to create collective impact with states, companies and other donors.

The one thing that all the stories have in common is that giving is always based on successful entrepreneurship. Every interviewee recognizes that they need to give back to the societies that have made possible their economic success. This is an important synthesis since in the end the clash of culture may not be so much between the US and Europe but – as the film suggests – between the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent. The latter is the real global challenge.

Michael Alberg-Seberich is managing partner at Active Philanthropy

Tagged in: Ariane de Rothschild Giving cultures Giving Pledge Warren Buffett

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