Where to donate $1 billion? Local philanthropist seeks ideas

Robert McCartney
Columnist September 23, 2011

World-class financier and philanthropist Bill Conway, 62, of McLean plans to give away at least $1 billion before he dies, much of it in the Washington region. He wants your ideas on where to donate.

No joke. This is for real.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Sure, there are a couple of catches. Conway, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group investment company, is especially interested in helping the poor and long-term jobless. So, please, no e-mails asking him to pay for your Caribbean vacation or a new master bedroom suite.

Also, he’d like to avoid simple giveaways. He’s done a lot of those already, donating tens of millions of dollars to local charities that provide food, shelter and health care to the needy. Since November, he has contributed $6 million to the Capital Area Food Bank, which helps feed 380,000 people in our region.

Now, as Conway prepares to give away 50 percent or more of his net worth estimated at more than $2 billion, he’s begun thinking about how to use the money to create something more lasting.

“So much of what I do now is stopgap. Somebody’s hungry; we give money to the food bank,” Conway said in an interview in his Pennsylvania Avenue office. Although such help is necessary and worthwhile, he said, “It would be far better if we had a more permanent solution.”

Conway is intrigued by a recent suggestion from his wife, Joanne, to use his wealth to create large numbers of productive, self-sustaining jobs for the poor.

“More effective than giving away half my fortune before I die is finding a way to help people have a good-paying job,” he said. That would help not only the newly employed, but also their families and the rest of the community.

“If I’m going to create 1,000 jobs, or 10,000 jobs, or whatever the number is, wouldn’t we all be better off?” With jobs, he said, people “have a home; they go out to eat; they have a life.”

Conway’s search for what he calls “a big idea” to guide his philanthropy raises a timely question for the Washington region and the nation: What’s the best way to harness private charity to do the most good for society?

Needs are growing because of the slow economy. Government safety nets are shrinking because of tight budgets.

Meanwhile, some of the wealthiest members of the baby boom generation are actively looking for ways to give back to the community. The nation’s two richest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have urged their fellow billionaires to pledge to donate at least half their wealth before dying.

Conway said the impact could be enormous if other billionaires joined him in creating jobs. “If everybody who was in the Forbes 400 said they were going to create 10,000 jobs, by my mathematics, that would be 4 million jobs,” he said. America has about 14 million unemployed people.

Conway became interested in helping the poor in the early 1990s, when he started giving muffins to homeless people he saw on the streets near his office. He’s motivated in part by his Roman Catholic faith; he regularly attends St. Patrick’s Church in Northwest and Little Flower Church in Bethesda.

“Generally, I have a strong interest in trying to help people who are maybe not as lucky as I am,” Conway said. “I’ve been well rewarded in this world. I’m more worried about the next one.”

In theory, few people are better suited to finding ways to create jobs than Conway. As one of three businessmen who founded Carlyle in 1987, he helped build a financial powerhouse with high-level Washington connections and stakes in more than 200 companies employing more than 600,000 people.

Nevertheless, Conway says he doesn’t know the best way to create large numbers of lasting jobs. “Maybe you could ask your readers to help us,” he said.

He said one possibility would be working with top universities on an Institute for Job Creation. Another would be investing in infrastructure. A third would be helping charitable organizations expand.

Some local experts have recommended helping people get community-college educations or similar job skills. Lisa Mallory, director of the District’s Department of Employment Services, noted that the city has 35,000 unemployed people — who in many cases aren’t qualified for 51,000 available openings.

“I think [Conway’s] investment would be best spent investing in individuals and in those persons’ success,” Mallory said.

What do you think? E-mail your ideas to Conway at inquiries@carlyle.com. Copy me in at mccartneyr@washpost.com.

Conway said of his wealth: “I wake up a lot of mornings and I think, ‘Well, what I am supposed to do with this?’ ” Maybe you can help.

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