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The Business of Giving: Establish Your Legacy


Do you want to be remembered for selfless acts, or selfish ones?


When Bill Gates stopped punching the clock at Microsoft (MSFT), he not only changed careers: He changed his legacy.

Gates' willingness, at the still-young age of 52, to leave the company he'd built from the ground up to focus on the needs of others may be his greatest achievement. Gates will now be known not only as the man who revolutionized the software industry, but also as a philanthropist who, via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, helped fight 20 of the world's most devastating diseases and improved the U.S. education system. He's no longer merely one of the richest men in the world, but also one of the most generous: Every year, he gives away a sizable chunk of that fortune.

Gates isn't the only one spreading his wealth for the common good: Earlier this month, oil and gas billionaire David H. Koch contributed $100 million for a cause he's passionate about: The arts. The funds will go toward renovation of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, to be renamed for Koch once repairs are complete. Thanks to his donation, the New York City Ballet and the City Opera will be able to perform in a state-of-the-art facility.

Also this month, Leonard Tow, noted philanthropist and former CEO of Citizens Communications, donated millions to two of New York City's leading journalism schools to fund scholarship on how the newspaper business can thrive in the Internet age.

His reason? Tow told the New York Times he was worried about the industry as a whole and -- as a native Brooklynite and Columbia University graduate -- he was annoyed by Harvard University's dominance in the field of new media studies.

Health care, education, the arts, -- even a little good old-fashioned competitiveness -- fueled these philanthropists' charitable efforts. But you don't need to retire to start building your legacy.

Consider Christopher Cooper-Hohn, who runs the Children's Investment Fund (TCI), a hedge fund whose profits are tied to the Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), a charity run by his wife, Jamie Cooper-Hohn.

CIFF makes grants to programs that help improve the health, safety and education of impoverished children in sub-Saharan Africa and India. Investors in TCI agree to pay extra fees to the foundation. Given the fact that the fund has an average rate of return of 42%, I can't imagine they mind.

CIFF reported an increase of $856 million in 2007, making it the most generous philanthropic organization in Great Britain. You have to wonder if that phenomenal success isn't somehow related to the good karma generated by the Cooper-Hohns' willingness to help those in need.

So whether you decide to fund causes important to you today, to retire and make philanthropy your second career, or even to just take it into account in your estate planning, I encourage you to make helping others a priority as these business leaders have done.

After all, how do you want the world to remember you? When Sir John M. Templeton died earlier this month, his obituary listed him as first and foremost a philanthropist whose charities give away $70 million a year to promote religious and scientific study. The fact that he was a billionaire who revolutionized the mutual fund industry was overshadowed by his foundation's Templeton Prize. Its first recipient? Mother Teresa.

As a point of contrast, think of Leona Helmsley. Though she died in 2007, she's still making headlines for leaving $12 million dollars to her dog, Trouble. This begs the question: At the end of the day, what will define you? Selfish acts, or selfless ones?

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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