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Why You Should Hug a Hedge Fund Guy

It’s easy to beat up on finance folks. Maybe it’s that whole facilitating the collapse of the global economy thing. Or maybe it’s just the khakis. Whatever it is, they’ve gotten a pretty bad rap of late. And sure, much of it is deserved—but some of it isn’t. When you get past the cheap jokes and talking points, you can see that some of them are doing far more good than we might like to admit, and maybe even more good than some of the folks we hold up as role models.

Take a look at the top charitable donors from last year. One thing that stands out is the number of people who work in financial services. A hedge fund guy here, a private equity dude there—the list is littered with them, and they’re doing some serious donating. Here are a few random entries, with their corresponding ranks, professions, donation amounts, and causes:

Stanley F. and Fiona B. Druckenmiller – $705 million, ranked #1

He founded Duquesne Capital Management, she’s a former portfolio manager, and the two of them are looking to fuel major advances in neuroscience. We all have causes that are important to us. Not many of us can write a $100 million check to NYU to build an institute to study them. Oh, and for good measure, in 2006 they gave $25 million to the Harlem Children’s Zone.

George Soros – $150 million, ranked #6

Known as “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England,” Soros made $1 billion during the 1992 U.K. currency crisis. Now, he’s putting some of it to good use. Last year, he donated $100 million to establish the climate-change advocacy organization Fund for Policy Reform. In response to the financial crisis, he’s given $50 million to create the Institute for New Economic Thinking, declaring, “The entire edifice of global financial markets has been erected on the false premise that markets can be left to their own devices. We must find a new paradigm and rebuild from the ground up.” In case that wasn’t enough, the guy also played a major role in helping to shift Hungary from communism to capitalism.

Paul Allen – $85 million, ranked #11

You might know him as the guy who helped found Microsoft. What you might not have known is that he also founded Vulcan, an investment firm. Among his many causes are neuroscience and genomics research, arts and culture programs, social-service organizations, teacher-skills advancement, a food bank, a low-income credit union, and a literacy program in Native American tribal areas. In short, the guy’s spreading it around.

More than a third of the top 60 donors were in some way related to the finance industry, accounting for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion worth of donations. I know it’s hard to like a banker, but are we supposed to pretend that that level of money doesn’t make a significant difference? You know that super-inspirational start-up you’re telling all your friends about? They’d kill to have one of these folks invest. We’re talking about real money for real change.

This is the modern day “captains of industry” vs. “robber barons” debate. It used to be Carnegie; now it’s Bloomberg. I’m not going to minimize the damage caused by the financial services industry. I just don’t want us to necessarily ignore the other side of things. Did you go to school on any kind of scholarship? Thank a rich person. Been to a nice museum lately? You’re welcome, says Uncle Pennybags. Hoping to eradicate some terrible disease? Chances are, so is someone you’ve never heard of whose fortune could fund the cure.

No, simply writing a check doesn’t make you a great philanthropist. Except, actually, I’m pretty sure it does. Most of the causes out there don’t need your petitions or your joie de vivre anywhere near as much as they need money. So as much as we need young, entrepreneurial visionaries to create social organizations, we need deep pockets to fund them. And these are the people with that kind of cash.

Yes, I know they’re often motivated by a tax break. And no, I don’t contend that a few good eggs redeem an entire industry. I’m just saying that maybe, just maybe, not every single person who sports penny loafers deserves to be burned at the stake (unless it’s just because they’re wearing penny loafers, in which case I’m all for it).

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