November 5, 2012

Using Business Skills for Philanthropic Good: Pete Peterson's Campaign to Reduce National Debt

Philanthropy offers a unique opportunity to tackle challenges that have no easy answer.

By: The Bridgespan Group
Philanthropy offers a unique opportunity to tackle challenges that have no easy answer. For former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Peter G. Peterson, that meant committing $1 billion to solving a problem that—at the time he started working on it—nobody else wanted to talk about: the rising national debt and its potential to imperil the country’s future.

The son of penniless Greek immigrants, Peterson had risen through the ranks of business at Lehman Brothers and The Blackstone Group to become one of the richest men in America. But he was convinced that the nation’s increasing debt was threatening what had made his own success possible—the American Dream—for future generations.

Although economic experts agreed that the government’s fiscal path was unsustainable, the country’s leaders were not taking action. Peterson surmised that they wouldn’t unless the American people were convinced that deficit reduction was a national priority—and began to hold their politicians accountable for it.

In 2008, Peterson decided to throw his time and energy—along with that $1 billion commitment—into raising awareness among the American people about the country’s long-term fiscal challenges through his newly established Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

Why did Peterson think he could make a meaningful difference on an issue that many Americans knew about, but to which they seemed indifferent?
It turned out that his 50 years of corporate and civic leadership had earned Peterson a formidable set of skills and connections that were uniquely suited to the kind of campaign he envisioned.

As a former advertising executive, Peterson knew how to make a message stick. He is credited with using market research to coin the expression “I like Ike,” which became one of the catchiest political slogans of all time.

As former Secretary of Commerce and founder of the Blackstone Group, he had the network and reputation to convene national economic leaders—from Bill Clinton to John Boehner to the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators working on debt reduction—in a single room.

And as a philanthropist, unbeholden to lobbyists or special interests, Peterson had the neutrality to seek nonpartisan solutions to a problem that was so tough it would require bipartisan action.

Learn more about how Peterson used his unique experience and connections to get results with his philanthropy.

This is the last post in our Philanthropy and Government blog series. To read the full article that inspired this series, click here. Click on the links below to read previous posts. Join the conversation by commenting below or on Twitter. You can follow Give Smart Twitter updates at @BridgespanGroup.

Philanthropy and Government Series

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