We celebrate our great athletes. Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday last week was a major event. Jackie Robinson has a new biopic coming out next month, 40 years after his death.
Babe Ruth is still remembered vividly, even though the last time he hit a baseball was 1935. We celebrate our great statesmen. Abraham Lincoln is a constant source of inspiration, including last year’s movie “Lincoln.”
Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and others generate enthusiasm from millions of Americans.
But we are less likely to celebrate the men who make this country run, the great industrialists, the great business leaders. Even when we know the names of Henry Ford, the Watson family of IBM, or Robert Woodruff of Coca-Cola, or modern-day titans like Warren Buffett, people are as likely to criticize as to praise.
There is skepticism of great wealth — sometimes even outright opposition. Many talk about great business leaders not as great men, but as selfish, greedy, and exploitative.
This picture is wrong.
Our successful business people and entrepreneurs are not greedy misers looking to get more and more for themselves. They don’t want to hurt those of us who are worse off. They don’t think only of their own interests and nothing of anyone else.
To start with, the only way to create a successful, sustainable business is by helping people. You have to create value for customers. A business owner only makes money when people buy products or services, and they will only make the purchase if they are getting something out of it. And even if they buy once without getting value, they most certainly won’t buy again.
The only way to become successful is to create and deliver products and services that make life better for others. That’s by simple definition.
But perhaps more importantly, America’s successful business people have proven time and again throughout our country’s history that they are thinking of ways to help all Americans, and especially those who are struggling. We are the most charitable nation in the world, and it’s not even close.
Statistically, Americans gave almost $300 billion to charity in 2011, and the vast majority of that is donations from individuals. That number represents nearly 2 percent of our country’s GDP — and no one else is close.
For comparison, no other country in the world gives even 1 percent of national GDP to charity. According to the latest comparative study, the United Kingdom is second — at 0.73 percent of GDP.
This giving spirit is everywhere if you look for it. Recently, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg donated $350 million to Johns Hopkins University, bringing his lifetime donations to just that one institution up to $1.1 billion. Mr. Bloomberg has a fortune of $25 billion — and plans to give away every bit of it to charity.
Bill Gates is not only famous for Microsoft, but also for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He has given more than $28 billion to charity already in his lifetime, and has pledged to give 95 percent of his wealth to charity.
The Gates are topped by only one man in lifetime giving so far — Warren Buffett, who has already donated more than $40 billion, and like the Gates plans to give almost all of his fortune (99 percent) to charity.
The Gates family and Buffett, in fact, have inspired many others of our most successful business people and entrepreneurs to give —and give generously. The Giving Pledge has been signed by dozens of billionaires pledging to give at least half of their wealth to charity.
Its subscribers include Mark Zuckerberg, David Rockefeller, T. Boone Pickens, George Lucas, and many more.
This spirit of generosity is not new to Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville published his observations on American society, Democracy in America, in 1840. He was amazed by the way he saw Americans help one another through private and civic organizations, with charitable organizations providing for the needs of people.
Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller are legendary for their philanthropy, legacies that are carried on by their descendants. There’s Sam Walton with his generous spirit. Here in Atlanta, long-time Coca-Cola chairman (and one of my heroes) Robert Woodruff famously donated his fortune, which is still benefiting the state today.
Successful business people are not evil. They are not selfish. They are not heartless. In the United States, we have a culture of generosity and charity that is at its strongest at the very top — and has only grown over the years. It’s time to get past demonizing these people and instead recognize that we as Americans are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to do the right thing.
Fran Tarkenton is the Founder and CEO of OneMoreCustomer.com, a web resource for Small Business Advocacy and Education. After his Hall of Fame football career, Fran had a successful career in television and then turned to business. He has founded and built more than 20 successful companies and now spends his time coaching aspiring entrepreneurs. Read more reports from Fran Tarkenton — Click Here Now.
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