Meeting of America's Richest About 'Need,' Attendee Says

Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett Discuss Coming Together 'to Do More'

By RUSSELL GOLDMAN and EILEEN MURPHY

May 20, 2009—

Under a cloak of secrecy, some of the world's wealthiest people gathered in an unprecedented meeting early this month in New York City "to see how they can join together to do more," according to one attendee.

Invited by the world's two richest men Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, along with David Rockefeller, a Who's Who of American wealth and influence gathered around a long table in a window-lined private room overlooking the East River on May 5.

"The overwhelming reason for the meeting was need -- that was the issue that galvanized everyone to participate," Patricia Stonesifer, senior advisor to the Gates foundation's trustees, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, told ABCNews.com. "This was a group very committed to philanthropy coming together to see how they can join together to do more."

Gates and Buffett were joined by billionaire moguls Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg along with heavyweight philanthropists George Soros and others.

Together the attendees have donated more than $70 billion to charity since 1996, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

How is the Economy Treating You? Share Your Story With ABC News

A clandestine meeting of the country's rich and powerful, left off their public calendars and hidden from the press, is enough to spark the imaginations of conspiracy theorists everywhere, but attendees told ABC News.com the meeting was "100 percent about philanthropy" and it was not meant to be a secret.

"It was meant to be a private exchange but it wasn't a secret really, just a private meeting," Stonesifer said.

First reported by IrishCentral.com, ABCNews.com confirmed each of the attendees' presence at the meeting held at the residence of the Rockefeller University president on the campus of the Manhattan medical school.

It lasted about five hours, beginning in mid-afternoon and continuing through dinner, Stonesifer said.

"This particular group had never come together as a group before but many of the attendees had met in the past either individually or in smaller groups -- but never all at once," she said. "This was a great discussion and they agreed to continue the dialogue and meet again in the future. There were a lot of good ideas."

She said that the discussion "ranged from emergency relief efforts to scholarship efforts, to U.S. education efforts to global health." Another attendee who asked to remain anonymous described the meeting as "a private gathering of friends and colleagues to share their history and excitement about their philanthropy. [It was] a group together discussing a range of things they are working on."

When again asked about the meeting following ABC News.com's initial report Mayor Bloomberg said he sometimes holds private meetings that are "not going to be on the public schedulues. There are meetings all over this city and there are some very powerful people in this city."

Bloomberg who would not directly comment on the meeting or its outcome said: "You know I am very interested in private philanthropy, I think it has a unique place in our society in that with private dollars you can try new things, things that you can't do with public dollars."

There remain as many questions about the meeting's details as there are about the logistics behind its organization. How did some of the world's most public figures coordinate their schedules, travel, and security with no one in media knowing about it?

Charities Suffer in Recession

The meeting was reminiscent of the 1907 salons of America's foremost financiers held in the study of J.P. Morgan to discuss how private citizens could stop the economic panic. IrishCentral reported that each of the participants was given 15 minutes to propose how to best direct their charity given the global economic climate.

Charities are suffering during the crisis, and America's top philanthropists likely met to chart a new course for global charity, said Stacy Palmer, editor-in-chief of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

A meeting of the country's top philanthropists is "extraordinary" and "really unusual," Palmer said.

"I can't think of another time they've all been in the same room to talk about philanthropy," she said. "It's unprecedented."

Gates and Buffet have publicly committed their vast fortunes to the same philanthropic efforts, and Rockefeller, the chairman of Rockefeller Financial Services, comes from a long line of philanthropists.

Gates, the founder and former CEO of Microsoft, who topped the Forbes' Richest People list this year, has dedicated his foundation to eradicating infectious disease worldwide.

According to Portfolio magazine, Gates, who is worth about $59 billion, donated $3.7 billion from 2002 to 2006 and $10 billion from 2007 to 2008.

Warren Buffett, CEO of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, was ranked the second-richest man by Forbes this year with a net worth is estimated at $52 billion. Though his giving in the past year is not disclosed, he donated some $46.1 billion between 2002 and 2006, according to Portfolio.

In 2006, Buffet pledged $31 billion, the bulk of his fortune, to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, doubling the organization's endowment virtually overnight.

Though the charitable interests of the participants differ, they have some things in common, said Bob Ottenhoff, CEO of Guidestar, a service that tracks nonprofit organizations.

For the most part, the attendees are all self-made. Their donations come from money they made in their own lifetimes, rather than old family fortunes, and they have committed to giving away their fortunes while still alive rather than through bequests after their deaths.

One exception is Rockefeller, scion of the Rockefeller fortune. In 2008, Rockefeller gave $137 million to charity.

Philanthropic Groups Have Global Reach

Though the philanthropic focus of each of the participants differs, many of their foundations have a global dimension.

"Each has their specialty. Gates focuses on world health, [CNN founder Ted] Turner on the environment and the UN, Soros is involved in civic engagement," Ottenhoff said.

Between 1997 and 2006 Turner has donated $1.6 billion, the bulk of which, $1 billion, went to the UN Foundation in 1997.

Soros, a fund manager worth $9 billion, gave $1.1 billion from 2002 to 2006 and $475 million from 2007 to 2008. Much of Soros giving goes to his family's Open Society Institute.

"These sorts of meetings don't happen very often. It is difficult for large philanthropic organizations to work together. The fact that these are all very engaged living donors means very interesting things can happen," Ottenhoff said.

Both Ottenhoff and Palmer agreed that it was likely the financial crisis that brought everyone together.

Charitable giving has taken a serious hit in recent months, and the power players likely discussed how to keep some nonprofits afloat.

"Nonprofits are going through a difficult time. The endowments of many foundations have dropped significantly," Palmer said. "Many people are not as able to give as much money as the used to.

"They are making a statement that donors should continue to give. They are likely planning on a sending a message that philanthropy needs to continue worldwide," she said.

Few of the participants, Palmer said, gave money quietly and she anticipated that the secret meeting was the first step in a plan that would eventually be made public.

A number of other people attended the meeting including: Winfrey, worth $2.7 billion, who donated some $50 million in 2007; Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Mayor of New York City, who is worth $11.5 billion and donated $205 million from 2007 to 2008; financier Eli Broad who donated $100 million in 2008; and financier Peter Peterson, who committed $1 billion in 2008.