The Great Giveaway

Emotional-intelligence expert Dan Goleman highlights a major example of how money is not the prime motivating factor for many millennials.

Daniel Goleman is author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence and of the forthcoming Optimal: How to Sustain Personal and Organizational Excellence Every Day. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

At the beginning of 2024—among the many headlines on suffering and destruction—came an inspiring story of a 31-year-old Austrian heiress named Marlene Engelhorn. The descendant of a European business dynasty, Engelhorn put out a call for 50 strangers to join her in deciding how to give away more than $27 million of her inheritance.

"I have inherited a fortune, and therefore power, without having done anything for it," she told the BBC.

Ten thousand randomly selected Austrian citizens 16 years and older received invitations to take part in what Engelhorn called the Good Council for Redistribution. Recipients could register online or by phone to help the heiress decide what to do with 90% of her wealth. The effort was, in part, a response to a decision made in 2008 to abolish inheritance taxes in Austria.

"If politicians don't do their job and redistribute, then I have to redistribute my wealth myself," she said. "Many people struggle to make ends meet with a full-time job, and pay taxes on every euro they earn from work. I see this as a failure of politics, and if politics fails, then the citizens have to deal with it themselves."

America’s wealthiest individuals are often some of the country’s biggest philanthropists, according to Forbes research on members of the 2023 Forbes 400 list. As a group, however, America’s richest have given away less than 6% of their combined net worth.

This year’s low percentage rates were revealed by looking only at “out-of-the-door” giving: grants made by billionaire-owned foundations alongside direct gifts Forbes could track. This is in contrast to previous years, which measured generosity primarily by the money the list’s members put into their foundations, without investigating whether or not that money went anywhere.

According to Forbes, only eleven of America’s 400 richest people have given away more than 20% of their money—a short list that included George Soros, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Jeff Skoll. Turns out Soros is the most generous of the group, donating more than $19 billion—roughly three times his current net worth—to support things like freedom of expression, human rights, and climate justice.

But none of these American billionaires measure up to Engelhorn as a clear beacon of what it means to be dedicated to something beyond one’s own interests. Her efforts center on the importance of collective thinking and collective action, bringing attention to the ways in which business has traditionally failed to account for the hidden costs of making a profit.

In her mission statement, the heiress writes, “Wealth is never an individual achievement. Wealth is always created by society. A few people get rich because they buy other people's time and profit from it. Because they have a patent on a product that others urgently need. Because they buy a piece of land that increases in value and because society builds infrastructure around it. In the process, they destroy the environment to harvest the resources.”

This is the inequality Engelhorn is motivated by—the purpose which drives her to reallocate her wealth.

“My personal situation allows me to act now,” she continues. “That's why I want to redistribute my wealth back to society. But then the question emerges: how? The first answer is usually to donate. That sounds good, but firstly it doesn't solve the problem of political failure. And secondly, it again grants me power that I shouldn't have. Redistribution must be a process that extends beyond me.”

In the coming months, Engelhorn will meet with 50 Austrians across all age groups, states, social classes, and backgrounds to help her determine the best use of the $27 million. This isn’t just a meaningful action, it’s an entirely new approach to thinking about how to extend one’s efforts beyond one’s own self. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon


Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.