Whether you agree with his views or not, the billionaire Pete Peterson is a great example of a philanthropist who is highly focused, disciplined, and understands the leverage that comes from investing in experts working in specific niches.
Peterson has been engaged for many years in an effort to bring attention to America's fiscal challenges and recently extended his philanthropy to the area of healthcare, bankrolling a new center that will look at how to improve the quality and efficiency of the U.S. healthcare system, while lowering costs. Peterson also gave a huge gift to the (subsequently renamed) Peterson Institute for International Economics, the leading policy shop in Washington focused on U.S. global economic policy.
Now, here's the thing: It's not easy to pinpoint the actual impact of Peterson's giving. The federal budget deficit remains a third-tier issue for most voters, and it's not clear what role Peterson money played in moving this issue briefly to Washington's front burner in 2010 and 2011, even if records do show that his money has supported a great deal of high-profile work in this area. Likewise, it's hard to isolate the role of Peterson funds in accounting for the influence of the Peterson Institute for International Economic Policy, much less measure that influence to begin with.
But this is often the case when it comes to funding policy work. It may be hard to say what your money is buying, even after years of spending.
What can be said with more certainty, though, is that Peterson has made himself a big fish in several ponds that are indisputably important. And while it's hard to gauge actual impact on deficit issues, you can see how Peterson-supported experts have been major voices helping shape that debate. Ditto on global economic policy.
My guess is that Peterson's "initial" $200 million investment in a new center for healthcare will prove to be his best bet yet, because here he has chosen an area where there's already a lot of momentum behind reform efforts. Of course, efforts to contain healthcare costs dovetail with his broader fiscal push, since such costs are a main driver of long-term deficits. All very smart.