Most high school boys don’t get sent to detention for their computer coding skills. At least, that’s not the crowd I picture filling the principal’s office on a given afternoon.
Breakfast Club-esque images of nonchalant, yet slightly edgy, teens bonding over punishment for minor misdemeanors come to mind first, not tech-savvy, budding entrepreneurs. But, in Bill Gates’s case, exploiting a school computer’s programming glitch to get more computer time temporarily banned him from access to his high school’s computers.
Undeterred, Gates and his friends offered to their skills to the company supplying the school’s computers once their access to the computers was reinstated. Instead of exploiting glitches, this time the boys debugged the program, and strengthened the existing product. At the same time, they applied their skills to creating a payroll program for the computer company and a scheduling program for the school.
Gates’s early passion for computers and programming found a productive outlet that grew from a young boy’s antics into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. According to Forbes, Gates and his wife Melinda are currently worth about $72 billion, having hovered near the top of Forbes’ annual list of the top 400 wealthiest people since Gates’s debut as a billionaire in 1987.
This productive creativity and fabulous wealth has led, in turn, to enormous philanthropy. As of December 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had given away $28 billion.
It’s an illustration of how profit can make philanthropy possible, and if we’re serious about helping others, we’ll take note.
The Potential of Profit
Profit is simply a measurement. It is feedback sent to producers in response to a service or product.
From it, we can gauge whether or not to continue production of that service or item. Some fear that because profit is a result of self-interested action, it may be an inappropriate expression of greed. But, as Rev. Robert Sirico explains in a recent post,
Earning a profit is an indication that things are going as planned in meeting the needs of clients, and conversely, that when a profit is not attained, something is going wrong.
Gates was not shy in his pursuit of his passion for computers and innovation. Rather, he recognized that his skills were a valuable solution to a shortcoming, and he set about to meet that need.
For many Christians, earning a profit may not seem to be a remarkable end in and of itself. However, pursuing profit is essential if we are to serve others through our talents and the activity of trade.
We create wealth as we invest our resources in productive ways to create products valued by consumers in the market. From that profit-seeking activity we can then invest in others philanthropically.
To help others requires extra resources that we can give away. This can only happen when we successfully acquire profit. Not only can we meet needs through mutually beneficial market transactions, but we are then better equipped to help those who cannot engage in profitable exchange. Charitable gifts and investments are very effective, but to give much, we must earn much.
A World without the Cultural Mandate
In a world where we are not all Christians, we can’t assume that everyone will feel the same call to care for the poor that Christians understand. A Christian’s motivation stems from the commands and examples we receive in the Bible.
We are called to be fruitful and multiply, to make disciples, to be faithful with our resources, and to serve others well. Philanthropy is a logical extension of these callings.
Yet for those who do not perceive these calls, they can still serve others through the market process in which the pursuit of profit is a way to bring prosperity to others. It’s a powerful illustration of common grace.
By earning profit, we can, as Christians, more effectively engage our world. In the pursuit of profit we all become better aware of the most effective ways we can serve each other with our unique God-given talents and creativity. Through profit we are enabled and empowered to use our excess resources to engage our world philanthropically.