Thursday, January 6, 2011

How Would You Invest a Million Dollars?

Imagine you wanted to invest $1 million dollars so as to make the greatest positive difference in the world. How would you invest it?

The best I've been able to come up with is what I'm calling MentorMatch: the equivalent of but for matching mentors with proteges.

Can you think of something more beneficial?


SLCDave said...

I would find an investment that paid 10%.. and use 100K to fund a collaborative (onsite/virtual) national conference on raising boys into men.

Boys who turn into men
-take responsibility
-don't go to jail
-get jobs and pay taxes
-look out for society
-Marry and raise the next generations
-some of the gifted ones become entrepreneurs, public servants, ministers

to your unforgettable point a few months ago.. focusing on a few gifted boys could account for much of the progress in the world as well.

this is the foundational stuff...that isn't politically correct that needs to be done.

Andre said...

Good question. I have discussed this with my wife multiple times. Is this on the assumption that it's $1 million after taxes? Would it be enough to fund a franchise or use for income generating property?

Marty Nemko said...

Whether before or after taxes, Andre, I'm convinced that net societal benefit would be greater from my MentorMatch idea. Perhaps I didn't make clear that my indicator of success is benefit to the world.

Lita Perna said...

I would invest in a one-on-one intense and ongoing mentorship program for economically disadvantaged inner city male youths. So many of these kids’ male role models are pimps, gang-bangers and drug dealers. The right person (a strong male) with the right words at the right time could turn their lives around.

Anonymous said...

FYI, a google search for "mentor match" turns up lots of programs within professions.

There's a general site which seems quite young at this point,

I'd be interested in your take on that one.

Marty Nemko said...

It looks good to me. It seems that what's required is a major marketing effort to get mentors and proteges to sign up.

Anonymous said...

Marty, the mentor site you are proposing already exists. It's called Micro Mentor ( Two of my friends have used it and had only good things to say about it!

Marty Nemko said...

I'm glad it does but it's tiny--it didn't even come up on my google searches. It's only created 2,000 matches. I now believe it would be best if were built into or eharmony. I'm working on it.

Anonymous said...

Good solution, Marty! I'll be excited to see what you come up with. One of the main problems with websites which require a sizable community to thrive is that too often their founders try to build this community from scratch. Your solution of working with an existing community is a good one. Another route to consider is working within a confined geographic region, making it succeed royally there, and then spreading the model. I tend to prefer your route, though, since it seems like the speediest way to spread the idea.

Marty Nemko said...

I have now issued queries to senior management at, eharmony, and, which has niche dating sites: Blacks, Jews, gays, etc. I got a no, without explanation from spark. I'm waiting to hear from the others. I also pitched organizations serving gifted kids to see if they wanted to set up a peer or adult mentoring matching service. I've gotten four nos and2 no-responses.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that building a mentoring site directly into a dating site's membership is a good fit.

Dating sites' membership are there (especially on sites like Match, where they pay $$ every month) looking for dates. I'd be concerned about exactly what the mentor/mentee relationship that would be formed might tend to look like coming out of that mix.

If you're interested in talking to folks primarily about using their back-end (matching toolkit, profile setup, etc.) you might get a more receptive response from They're a free and growing site for dating, and they are very focused on how the back-end works and can be improved (the attitude is very much like Google about 11 years ago.)

As far as plugging into a community -- wouldn't Linked In be a more logical fit for trying to do professional relationship work than a dating site?

Marty Nemko said...

Good comments, Anonymous. Will follow-up on both.

Doug S. said...

There's an organization called GiveWell that's dedicated to finding the most cost-effective charities.

One of their findings is that you can literally save a human life for less than $1,000, but it costs more than $10,000 to give a child in the U.S. a better education.

Is setting up a system to more efficiently "match mentors with proteges" worth letting 1,000 people die from diseases that could have been prevented or cured? Most people who could benefit from such a system would probably muddle along fairly well without it. On the other hand, people who have tuberculosis and can't get antibiotics end up dead.


In addition to the charities recommended by GiveWell, there are two other organizations I could recommend supporting. Both are long-term projects that I don't think are likely to show results in the next 30 years, but if they do work, will change everything.

One is the SENS Foundation, an organization dedicated to eliminating the single biggest cause of disease and death in the world: biological senescence, otherwise known as "old age". If people had the same chance of dying at 100 as we do when we're 18, we'd live to be an average of 1,000 years old.

The other organization I'll list is the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence". If a problem is too hard to solve, one thing you can do is build a better problem solver.

Marty Nemko said...

Doug, your argument makes the egalitarian assumption: all human lives are equally worthy. Could not a case be made that nurturing an otherwise largely ignored brilliant kid (which too often occurs in many rural and inner-city schools in the US and especially outside the US) may yield greater improvement to the world than immunizing 10 kids?

The neglected brilliant child has far greater potential, for example, for helping to cure cancer or develop the next Google than, say, 10 average kids.

Which is more worthy of one's charity dollars? Immunize ten kids at random or provide a wonderful mentor for a someone with tremendous potential that would otherwise go unrealized? You dismiss the latter as clearly unworthy. I'm not so sure.

Doug S. said...

Yes, it does make the egalitarian assumption. But I think your counterargument does too: you want to help brilliant people achieve great things (such as curing cancer), because the world gets better for everyone when they do. So we're reduced to the empirical question of whether we help more people by making other people better at helping others, or by helping others ourselves.

(And if you'd prefer the former, I'd really recommend the Singularity Institute. It's hard to make a convincing case for them in a short blog comment, though, so I'll have to give the short, non-convincing version. Of all the possible creatures that could have built a civilization, humans are probably among the dumbest, because if one of our dumber ancestor species could have built one, they would have. It should be possible to build something that is as far above people as people are above chimpanzees. And, someday, someone will figure out how to do it, and that will change everything.)


On a completely different track, another thing you can do with $1,000,000 is what Ben Franklin did with his money in his will: let it earn compound interest for two hundred years, and leave it to someone in the future to make good use of. He left the equivalent of about $5,000 to the cities of Philadelphia and Boston, to be loaned at five percent interest. After two hundred years, Boston ended up with $5 million and Philadelphia with $2 million. (The will allowed for some of the money to be spent after 100 years, and not all the investments actually paid the five percent interest specified.) If you did the same thing today with $1,000,000 and the investment earned the same rate of interest (which is about 3.6%) your trust fund would have over one trillion dollars in it after two hundred years. You can do a whole lot more with a trillion dollars than with a mere million!

Marty Nemko said...

Good comments, Doug.

While there is an egalitarian COMPONENT to my argument--more central is its utilitarian underpinning. I believe that NET to the world, investing in underserved high-potential people will result in greater world-wide pleasure and benefit. For example, the amount of worldwide pleasure and benefit that accrues from the invention of the search engine is inestimably large.

Doug S. said...

Yeah, I'm thinking we're coming at this from two different angles. I'm thinking something like this:

"The best way to make a positive difference in the world is to reduce suffering. The identity of the person who is suffering doesn't matter, only the degree. There is so much suffering in the world that we can't fix it all, at least not with a mere million dollars. We need to do triage: find the most severe suffering that is fixed most easily, and address that. In the short run, the most cost-effective way I know of for an individual to reduce the amount of suffering that will exist in the world is to donate to a charity that works on improving developing world health; people are suffering and dying from diseases that can be prevented or cured cheaply. In the long run, the best way to reduce suffering that I know of is to invest in research that could lead to a solution to the worst cause of suffering of all."

If I'm following you correctly, you're following a different line of reasoning:

"The most important way to make the world a better place is to increase its wealth. Wealth is created most effectively when smart people solve important problems. There are many smart people in the world that could be solving important problems, but, for various reasons, aren't. If we could increase the world's problem solving capability, we'd have much more wealth. The best way I can think of to improve the world's problem solving capability is to match smart people with mentors that will help them."

Have I understood you properly?

Marty Nemko said...

No Doug, you have not understood me. I'm agnostic on the question of whether wealth creation is the best way to create the most good.

What I was and am asserting is that a life is not a life is not a life. I believe that spending the aforementioned $1 million to provide, for example, mentoring for budding scientists likely will do more good for the world than providing mentoring for illiterates.

Doug S. said...

I'll agree, at least provisionally, that not all lives are equal because different lives have different consequences. Are you familiar with the Trolley Problem thought experiment? A runaway train is headed toward a junction, and you have to choose which of two tracks it will go down. Five people are tied to one track and one person to the other track. Most people agree that it's better to send the train down the track with only one person, because one death is less bad than five deaths.

Now let's complicate things a bit. On one of the tracks are five African children. On the other is someone who is trying to persuade you to save his or her life instead. Here are some arguments that person might give.

Person A: "I'm a doctor. If I survive, I'll end up saving more than five lives. Therefore you should save me."

Me: "I agree. You get to live."

Person B: "I'm a world-famous musician. I bring joy and happiness to people all over the world. These children aren't going to end up creating as much happiness as I do, so my life is worth more than all of theirs put together."

Me: "There are many musicians in the world. If you didn't exist, some other musician, currently unknown, would have become famous instead, and then that musician would have spread a roughly equal amount of joy and happiness. Sorry, but I can't save you."

Person B again: "But I'm also a great musician. Very few people ever get to be as good as I am, and that includes my hypothetical replacement. And not only do I give people joy with my music, I also advance the art of music itself."

Me: "You're right, if it were Mozart on the track, I think I'd want to save him. You get to live."

Person C: "I'm nobody special, but if you pick the other track, one of those children is going to grow up to be a brutal dictator. If you save me instead, you'll end up preventing more deaths in the long run. And I know this because this is a thought experiment."

Me: "Since this is indeed a thought experiment, I know it too. I'll sacrifice the other four children to kill the future dictator."

Person D: "I'm a mid-level manager at a large corporation, living in the United States. I have a well-paying job and a family with three children. My quality of life is much higher than theirs is going to be."

Me: "By that logic, if your children were on one side of the track and Carlos Slim were on the other, then I should save him and not your children. Is that right?"

Person D: "No. Once you get above poverty level, money doesn't make people happier. That's what the psychological research says. So my life will indeed be better than those of the African children, but Carlos Slim won't have a better life than my children will, or, at least, not by much."

Me: "This is a bit off topic, but since you both earn and spend a lot more money than what it takes to keep your family out of poverty, doesn't that mean that most of that money is being wasted, because you're not any happier than people who earn and spend less money? That sounds like a pretty good argument for taking that money from you and giving it to those African children. Anyway, that same happiness research also suggests that life circumstances may have has a surprisingly small effect on happiness. So I'm finding your arguments unconvincing so far."

So, should I save Person D or the five African children?

When you start measuring prices in dead children, things look "interesting". How many dead children would you value your proposed program at? ;)

(If I'm getting annoying, let me know. It's hard to tell with just text.)

Marty Nemko said...

Yes, Doug, despite your very good comments, I probably need to move on--my life is so busy. But I'll respond to your comment.

My guiding principle is: Be utilitarian--do things that do the most good for the most people EXCEPT when that would involve doing something heinous--and your example of killing five children for some non-enormous world gain would qualify as heinous.

Too often, though, individual and societal decision-making is too swayed by an individual or collective visceral feeling.

So, for example, I am convinced that the world would be better if school classes were grouped by ability. But when we did that, disproportionate percentages of African-Americans were in classes for low achievers. That generated a societal visceral reaction among liberals, who then and now dominate public school decisionmaking of "No. That's unfair." And ability grouped classes have largely been dismantled, certainly K-8, especially in California.

In my view, such a critical change required a more thoughtful, full-dimensioned dispassionate analysis of the benefits and costs to individuals of all races and to the larger society.

I do believe that if we had done that, America would have far more ability-grouped classes, at least for academic subjects, and in turn, far more students would get appropriate-leveled education, which is one of the few things we know DOES matter in education.