In 2017, when he took the Giving Pledge, Robert F. Smith made a statement regarding philanthropy to which he has adhered and expanded upon. In his Giving Pledge statement Smith explained why he wished to contribute half of his net-worth during his lifetime. Smith’s focus was the “Fourth Industrial Revolution:” transforming the world through technology. He emphasized the need for people in all communities to have equitable access to “intellectual capital” in order, not only to be participants but actively contribute to the future of industry.
“But potential is no guarantee of progress. We will only grasp the staggering potential of our time if we create onramps that empower ALL people to participate, regardless of background, country of origin, religious practice, gender, or color of skin,” Smith said in his statement.
Since then, Smith’s focused contributions have targeted social justice in the form of advocacy and philanthropy in the areas of education, finance and corporate diversity as an economic and moral imperative.
The Morehouse College Class of 2019 Commencement Address
Before Smith promised to pay the college loan debts of the Morehouse College Class of 2019, at the HBCU’s commencement that May, he spoke of the collective effort behind individual success. He emphasized the importance of each generation to open the doors of opportunity for the next.
‘“When Dr. King said that the ‘arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,’ he wasn’t saying it bends on its own accord. It bends because we choose to put our shoulders into it together and push,” Smith said. After announcing his class-wide gift, Smith made it clear that he hoped to set a precedent.
“Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,” he said. “[…] I want my class to look at these [alumni], these beautiful Morehouse brothers, and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community. We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American Dream.”
In October 2019, Smith was awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, primarily for his Morehouse donation. The Medal is an honor bestowed annually to inspiring philanthropists. At the award ceremony, Smith spoke of the ability of philanthropy to help “liberate the human spirit.” Smith reiterated that idea and expanded upon it most recently when discussing his involvement with the creation of Student Freedom Initiative.
Liberating the Spirit of the Black Community
Wes Hall, founder and Chairman of BlackNorth Initiative asked Smith about his focus on Black student debt in relation to Morehouse, Student Freedom Initiative and other education centered gifts. Smith returned that as a community member it was his obligation, just as he believes it is the obligation of all community members to do what they can to help others, “Not just to survive, but to excel.”
Smith spoke with a depth of experience about the spiritual grace a person can experience through the act of giving.
“The greatest joy you will ever feel in your life, from my experience, is the joy of liberating the human spirit,” he said, “And if you can liberate a human spirit through providing education, providing an opportunity, providing in many cases a pathway to a way that they can support their family or their community. There is no greater joy. And there’s no amount of wealth or money that you can spend on yourself that will ever exceed that.”
Later, answering a question from a student about when to start giving back, Smith replied that giving did not necessarily correlate to funding, especially where that isn’t sustainable for an individual such as a student or a person on a fixed income. Smith recommended looking into local institutions like Boys and Girls Clubs where people can donate time and organizational skills.
“You don’t wait at all, you give back every day. You just have to think about how you can give back and what’s your capacity,” Smith said. “Giving back isn’t just a function of dollars.”
Watch Smith’s Talks on YouTube
Learn more from Smith in his own words as he received the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy and spoke at the Morehouse College commencement ceremony in 2019. Or read about Smith’s top five speaking engagements.