Michael Porter is generally recognized as the father of the modern strategy field and has been identified in a variety of rankings and surveys as the world’s most influential thinker on management and competitiveness. He is also a leading authority on the application of competitive principles to social problems such as health care, the environment, and corporate responsibility. Porter is the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at the Harvard Business and the author of 18 books and over 125 articles. He received a B.S.E. with high honors in aerospace and mechanical engineering from Princeton University in 1969; an M.B.A. with high distinction in 1971 from the Harvard Business School, where he was a George F. Baker Scholar; and a Ph.D. in Business Economics from Harvard University in 1973. In 2001, Harvard Business School and Harvard University jointly created the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, dedicated to furthering Porter’s work.
Question: If you had $100 billion to give away, how would you spend it?
Michael Porter: I think the general principles of philanthropy are that giving the money is not what’s important. It’s actually what the money enables you to do, and the ideas that the money stimulates developed.
So what we have to do is we have to invest these resources in solutions to these very difficult social problems that are, first of all, that are implementable and scalable. We don’t want to create little projects that are wildly successful but they cost $100,000 per person benefited. We’ve got to find ways of doing things that are scalable. We’ve got to find ways of doing things that can be implemented.
I also believe that the best philanthropy that could be invested is philanthropy that starts to work out and prove some of these models of value that I was talking about.
With enough resources, you can solve almost anybody’s problem. You can give them all the food they need. You can give them housing. You can even pay for their healthcare. You can provide free medicine. But that’s not sustainable. What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to find ways of equipping people with the skills, and the talents, and the attitudes, and the orientations, and the access to create their own solutions to their own problems. That means some different kind of investments.
I worry about philanthropists who are too caring and too focused on really wanting to help people and demonstrate that they’ve fed this many children, or they’ve provided this many mosquito nets.
The Gates Foundation, I think, is starting to come into its own, in terms of understanding that its greatest contribution is about ideas. It’s not the money, it’s the ideas. It’s finding and validating some sustainable models that they can scale, but others can join.
I don’t know if that answers exactly the question of how you give this kind of vast resource, but it’s certainly the answer that I would give.
I would also say that there’s a tremendous tendency in philanthropy – for example, in healthcare – to give the money for the science, to fund that researcher who’s going to come up with that cure for cancer.
I think equally we have to understand that some of the most important problems of human society are not so much about the scientific, or the technical, or the tools, but they’re about the application. And so I guess I’d like to see more. I would put more – if I had it – resources into those areas.
Recorded on: June 11, 2007