A Note to Bill Gates, Oprah, Madonna: size isn't everything!

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Madonna recently announced that she was helping to build a $15 million girls school in Malawi; She apparently does not know that former Malawi President, Hastings Banda, an anglophile, built an exact replica of Eton in rural Malawi, complete with black tie & tails for each boy and to worldwide derision. This follows Oprah's $40 million girls "leadership academy" in South Africa which is experiencing growing pains and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation making grant after grant in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to mega-groups whom they feel will provide a greater "global impact" than the odd individual or small group-with-a-good-idea.

The Grameen Bank's Nobel Peace Laureate, Muhammad Yunnus, started with just $300 and an idea that a small loan to the poorest of the poor might yield positive returns. That has grown into what is now tens of millions of borrowers from not only Grameen Bank but from hundreds of microfinance institutions large and small following Yunnus' model and that of emBay's Pierre Omidyar and other "social venture capitalists" whose focus is not on the poorest of the poor but the better educated "most likely to succeed".

Would a letter or email from a "new Yunnus" with a new idea ever reach the New Philanthropists?

I asked just that question to Bill Gates, Sr., Bill Jr.'s dad and one of their Foundation's triumvirate, which also includes Melinda Gates, a couple of years ago at a private meeting he held in Los Angeles with local foundation presidents and philanthropists. If a communication in any form with a Grameen-like "new idea" was received by The Gates Foundation, would it:

A. Survive the mail room and go north from there?

B. Get anywhere near the "three who decide"?

C. If it came from an unknown individual or small group of individuals, would they be considered worthy if they only asked for a few thousand or tens of thousands of dollars to implement a small project with great potential?

"Sadly, no" was his direct quote. That left many observers audibly surprised or even shocked.

Our meeting was just after Warren Buffet committed an additional $30 billion to the Gates Foundation, bringing their annual grant-making to $3 billion and he expressed great distress at how they were ever going to give away that much money without a 2000-strong staff and a number of offices throughout the world. I replied that maybe the Gates Foundation's rapid growth was an albatross because they would likely miss out on Grameen-like ideas and only work through high overhead universities and mega-charities. These large organizations would be happy to soak up their funds in administrative costs and imaginary expenses with no greater likelihood of success -- and likely far less -- than individuals or small groups of individuals initiating change.

I also suggested that the Gates Foundation hire a diverse group of what Disney calls "Imagineers" to screen these odd over-the-transom communications for a kernel of an idea they could invest in.

I appreciate the Gates family's, Oprah's, Madonna's, Bono's and Brangelina's work -- don't get me wrong -- but there's a huge world full of local talent, new ideas and smaller-scale projects crying out for funding. Most often, these philanthropists meet a few such people through the larger groups they habitually fund... but not always. They must remember how they made their money in the first place and the creative challenge they again face in giving it back to humanity.