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Billionaires gather to discuss effects of recession on charities

Guardian Economics 21st May 2009

Organised by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, and with Oprah Winfrey in attendance, the world's wealthiest people collaborate on how to help charities through the economic downturn

Rarely have so many dollars been represented in a single room. An exclusive group of the world's richest individuals held a clandestine gathering in Manhattan this month to mull over the impact of the global financial crisis on philanthropy.

The two wealthiest men on the planet, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, organised a private conclave for fellow billionaires, including the currency speculator George Soros, the New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the CNN media mogul Ted Turner and the Blackstone private equity tycoon Pete Peterson.

Held on May 5 in a riverside room on the medical campus of Rockefeller University, the unprecedented assembly of financial power also included property magnate Eli Broad, banking heir David Rockefeller, hedge fund manager Julian Robertson and Oprah Winfrey, the chat show host who is one of the richest women in entertainment.

The get-together, left off billionaires' public diaries and passed completely beneath the media radar until news leaked this week, lasted five hours and was intended to be an exchange of views on how to optimise charitable donations during a period of financial upheaval.

Those present were worth a combined $120bn, according to estimates on Forbes magazine's annual rich list.

"The overwhelming reason for the meeting was need – that was the issue that galvanised everyone to participate," Patricia Stonesifer, a former head of the Gates Foundation who sat in on the meeting, told the television network ABC.

Describing the discussion as "100% about philanthropy‚" Stonesifer said topics included emergency relief efforts, scholarship initiatives, educational projects and global healthcare.

She said there was nothing cloak and dagger about the encounter: "It was meant to be a private exchange but it wasn't a secret really, just a private meeting."

The brainstorming session took place inside the on-campus residence of Rockefeller University's president, Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel prize-winning British scientist, who was not present.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, between them, those in the room have given more than $70bn to good causes over the last 13 years.

The chronicle's editor-in-chief, Stacy Palmer, said the ongoing economic meltdown was decimating the philanthropic world as charities' endowments sink in value and donors tighten their belts.

"The economy has changed the world of philanthropy," said Palmer, who estimates one in ten of America's not-for-profit organisations are at risk of closing. "Non-profit groups are having a very tough time and there would have been a lot to talk about."

Longstanding friends and regular bridge partners, Gates and Buffett collaborate closely on charitable efforts. Buffett has pledged much of his fortune to the Microsoft billionaire's Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has assets of some $55bn and concentrates its efforts on tackling diseases such as malaria, Aids and polio.

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