Lately, seeking solutions to improve the world has been quite in vogue. Everyone from Brangelina to Warren Buffett to Bill Gates seems to have a philanthropic mind-set these days.
Decades before this recent trend began, though, Brooke Astor was busy giving away the fortune that many associate with John Jacob Astor. Mrs. Astor, who is famously quoted as saying, "Money is like manure; it should be spread around," has passed away at the age of 105.
The "A-list" high-society life that Brooke Astor led is alien to most of us. Friends and acquaintances included such notables as the Rockefellers and the de la Rentas, as well as many vibrant personalities in the literary, political, and business worlds. The media are busy describing her as "the First Lady" of New York.
But despite her wealth and connections, she's also described as having felt comfortable around all types of people. She was known for treating the queen of England and residents of New York's most blighted, drug-ravaged neighborhoods with equal courtesy.
Astor, who gave away $195 million during her lifetime to charitable institutions and projects both large and small, apparently knew that money doesn't buy happiness -- she figured out her own wise route to that end. The Washington Post's coverage included the following quote from Astor:
Power, for me, is the ability to do good things for others. I have the means to do it, thanks to [husband] Vincent [Astor]'s money, and the act of giving makes me powerful inside. I would tell anyone, if you have enough money for three meals a day and you're not too busy, you ought to do something for others.
Those words in particular jumped out at me, because I truly feel most of us are in a position to do something to help others in need, and even the most modest gestures surely will help someone, somewhere.
This all reminded me of an incident last fall, when another extremely wealthy woman, Oprah Winfrey, opted not to give her studio audience the usual goodies that tended to stir up frenzies and make fodder for comedians. Instead, she gave them $1,000 debit cards sponsored by Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , with the stipulation that they give that money away to their favorite charities, or to individuals in need. Some cynics in the blogosphere thought the audience had gotten ripped off, but Oprah's explanation echoes Astor's spirit of giving: "I can honestly say that every gift I've ever given has brought at least as much happiness to me as it has to the person I've given it to. That's the feeling I want to pass on to you."
As investors, we see this type of behavior taking place in the realm of business these days, too. Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Bill Gates has his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which tackles some of the world's biggest social problems, and Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) Warren Buffett has made the world's largest philanthropic gift -- to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, no less. Not to be shown up, the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) guys launched a for-profit philanthropic arm that will attempt to help solve some of the world's ills.
In fact, many companies these days donate a portion of the profits from some of their products to charitable organizations, such as Timberland's (NYSE: TBL ) donations to Share Our Strength or Starbucks' (Nasdaq: SBUX ) donations to clean-water projects for children, through a percentage of the proceeds from its Ethos water.
I'm not in the least knocking individual investors who hope to better their own situations by investing in the best companies and hoping to make a mint in the process. All of us want financial security for ourselves. In fact, reaching financial independence is what we're all about at the Fool.
But maybe financial independence is even more liberating because it gives us the means to spread some of the joy around, through efforts such as the Fool's yearly Foolanthropy campaign. Foolanthropy rolls around every holiday season, and through it, we work together to find the brightest ideas from organizations specializing in sustainable, self-empowering solutions to the world's problems. For example, a multiyear Foolanthropy favorite is micro-credit concern Grameen Bank, which recently won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Brooke Astor appears to have been one of those individuals who led gracefully by example, and was able to enjoy the freedom that wealth can bring, while also recognizing that helping others is often a way to help ourselves. May she rest in peace, and may that spirit of grace and giving live on.
This year's Foolanthropy campaign starts in October, with a call for your best nominations. Put in your two cents at any time on the Foolanthropy discussion board.
Starbucks is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Berkshire Hathaway has been recommended in both services. Take a peek at either one free for 30 days.