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When Warren Buffett donated the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation in 2006, he gave Bill and Melinda Gates a mandate: "Swing for the fences." The Gateses recounted that moment in their foundation's 12th annual letter released Monday and explained that it has shaped how they have approached risk-taking ever since.
"When you swing for the fences, you're putting every ounce of strength into hitting the ball as far as possible," the couple wrote in their letter. "You know that your bat might miss the ball entirely--but that if you succeed in making contact, the rewards can be huge."
It's an interesting look into how two of the most influential people in business think about risk.
That quote was cited in the context of the Gates Foundation's philanthropic efforts, and the letter specifically notes that businesses are unlikely by nature to swing for the fences--especially when it relates to fostering positive social change--because of their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders. That was certainly true when Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft in 1975. And while today's businesses of course must consider how to maximize shareholder value, the idea that it is a company's primary task has been called into question of late.
It was only last August, for example, that 181 top U.S. CEOs announced a bold commitment to serve all of their company's stakeholders, not just their stockholders. While companies may not have resources on the same scale as the Gates Foundation to put toward philanthropic causes, that doesn't mean they can't find other opportunities to change the world through their businesses.
It's already starting. Back in 2018, I wrote about a pair of co-founders on Inc.'s 30 Under 30 list: Dan Klein and Patrick Tannous of Chicago-based Tiesta Tea. I was struck by their commitment to philanthropy, not as a PR stunt but as a nonnegotiable part of their business model: donating company money to nonprofits, organizing volunteers to help Chicago's homeless during freezing winters, and even building a well for the rural farmers who grew their hibiscus near Kano, Nigeria.
Yes, those efforts ate into the company's profits. Klein and Tannous told me they didn't care. And since then, multiple founders and CEOs have told me that if you bake social causes into the very bones of your business model, you'll stop asking yourself, "Should I sacrifice profits for social good?" Instead, you'll just do it.
So, take a page from Bill and Melinda's annual letter and swing for the fences--whatever that means for your company. You never know what you might achieve.