The enormity of Warren Buffett's gift of some $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was even more striking in its juxtaposition with a rather more awkward example of the vagaries of corporate philanthropy.
Days after Buffett's largess was disclosed, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison was reported to be withdrawing his pledge of $115 million to Harvard University, which would have established a trust in his name to study the impact of global health programs. The decision followed the resignation of Harvard president Larry Summers, who was instrumental in securing the commitment.
The deal was apparently never formalized in writing, a fact that did not stop Ellison from talking about it to The Wall Street Journal and other media in June 2005. "The agreement isn't yet signed," the Journal reported. But Ellison said in an interview that "it's absolutely going to happen."
Ellison can do what he likes with his money, and relationships in the political world of philanthropy and academia are critical. Indeed, the relationship shared by Bill Gates and Buffett was largely responsible for the brokering of his donation.
But in capitalizing on the short-term PR benefits last year of what amounted to only a handshake agreement, and then later revoking that same commitment, Ellison made a critical mistake. Ultimately, the public will not understand how Harvard's leadership change makes Ellison's laudable goal of seeking greater accountability in global health programs suddenly less important.
To the public at large, it looks merely like the acts of a man keen to use his high profile to score points. Before committing to donations of this kind, companies and their leaders need to evaluate their motives for making the gift, as well as the terms they set for its acceptance, in context of how it will be viewed by the public.