First item on the agenda: fixing the world

Richest philanthropists join forces to help charities struggling through recession

There are the great, and there are the good, and then there are those who are both – and in a plush Manhattan residence overlooking the East River earlier this month, America's greatest philanthropists assembled for a closed-doors meeting to discuss how best to tackle some of the world's most pressing problems, from disease to education to poverty reduction.

This first Philanthropists Summit was put together discreetly by the Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, and the investment guru Warren Buffett, the world's wealthiest and second-wealthiest men respectively. And the list of attendees reads like a page from the Forbes magazine Rich List.

The event comes at a time of great difficulty for many charities, whose rich donors have seen much of their wealth evaporate with the credit crisis and whose own endowments have suffered big losses.

Even the existence of the meeting was kept quiet and details have only been seeping out over the past few days, igniting the blogosphere with conspiracy theories. What could the likes of Oprah Winfrey, the New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the currency speculator George Soros and the media mogul Ted Turner be cooking up between them?

The meeting was held on 5 May at the private residence of the president of Rockefeller University, whose trustee, David Rockefeller, scion of the oil dynasty, helped sort out the venue. Between them, the attendees are worth more than $120bn (£76bn) and have donated more than $72bn to charity since 1996.

Mr Gates heads the world's richest and most powerful philanthropic foundation, named after himself and his wife, Melinda. In 2006, his friend and bridge partner Mr Buffett said he would hand most of his own fortune to the Gates Foundation to give away. Additional collaborations such as this were most likely on the informal agenda at the 5 May meeting, along with ways to encourage other members of the elite billionaires club to join the great global wealth giveaway.

"It wasn't secret," said Patty Stonesifer, the former chief executive of the Gates Foundation, who attended the meeting. "Bill and Warren hoped to do this occasionally. They sent out an invite and people came."

In their letter of invitation, Messrs Gates, Buffett and Rockefeller cited the worldwide recession and an urgent need to plan for the future. They said they wanted to hear the views of a broad range of major figures in the fields of finance and philanthropy.

As details of the meeting emerged on the blog Irish Central earlier this week, Mr Bloomberg – whose $16bn fortune is founded on a financial news business that bears his name – was asked about the event. He characterised it as a simple and informal gathering of friends. "All my friends are philanthropic," he said, "or they probably wouldn't be my friends".

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