It is the most elite club in the world. Ordinary people need not apply and there is no way to ask to join. You simply have to be very, very rich and very, very generous. On a global scale.

This is the Good Club, the name given to the tiny global elite of billionaire philanthropists who recently held their first and highly secretive meeting in the heart of New York City.

The names of some of the members are familiar figures: Bill Gates, George Soros, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, David Rockefeller and Ted Turner. But there are others, too, like business giants Eli and Edythe Broad, who are equally wealthy but less well known. All told, its members are worth US$125 billion ($195 billion).

The meeting - called by Gates, Buffett and Rockefeller - was held in response to the global economic downturn and the numerous health and environmental crises plaguing the globe. It was, in some ways, a summit to save the world.

When news of the secret meeting leaked, it sent shock waves through the worlds of philanthropy, development aid and even diplomacy.

The existence of the Good Club has struck many as a two-edged sword. On one hand, they represent a new golden age of philanthropy, harking back to the early 20th century when the likes of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Carnegie became famous for their good works. Yet the reach and power of the Good Club are truly new. Its members control vast wealth - and with that wealth comes huge power that could reshape nations according to their will.

Few doubt the good intentions of Gates and Winfrey and their kind who have already improved the lives of millions of poor people across the developing world. But can the richest people on earth actually save the planet?

For six hours, the assembled billionaires discussed the crises facing the world. Each was allowed to speak for 15 minutes. The topics focused on education, emergency relief, government reform, the expected depth of the economic crisis and global health issues such as overpopulation and disease. One of the themes was new ways to get ordinary people to donate small amounts to global issues. Sources say Gates was the most impressive speaker, while Turner was the most outspoken. Winfrey was said to have been contemplative.

That the group should have met at all is indicative of the radical ways in which philanthropy has changed over the past two decades. The main force is Gates and his decision to donate almost all his fortune to bettering the world. Unlike the great philanthropists of former ages, Gates is young enough and active enough to take a full hands-on role in his philanthropy and craft it after his own ideas. That example has been followed by others, most notably Soros, Turner and Buffett. This new form of philanthropy, where retired elite businessmen try to change the world, has even been dubbed "Billanthropy" after Gates. Another description is "philanthro-capitalism".

It was fitting that the Good Club met near the UN. The club members' extreme wealth makes it as powerful as some member nations.

Proponents of philanthro-capitalism would argue that they are also more effective in doing good for ordinary people. The club's members have given away about US$70 billion in 12 years, far beyond what many countries can afford to do with their own social policies and aid budgets.

"They have assets that rival the social spending budgets of many countries," said Professor Paul Schervish, director of Boston College's Centre on Wealth and Philanthropy.

There is little doubt that members of the Good Club have done amazing work. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with a current endowment of more than US$30 billion, is the biggest philanthropic organisation ever. Just one of its projects, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, is estimated by the World Health Organisation to have prevented 3.4 million deaths in just eight years.

The Soros Foundation has done valuable work setting up democratic institutions and independent media across the former Soviet bloc. But there is a potential downside to the growth of these "uber donors", especially if the whims of individuals start to take precedence over the expertise of professionals. Giving away billions of dollars is difficult and fraught with risk. There can be waste, mismanagement and poor investment. At the same time it can actually do harm. "If you are putting enormous amounts of money into a community that can't cope with it, then you can implode that community," Peterson said.

All its members are sensitive about privacy because of their unique mixes of fame and wealth.

But the cloak-and-dagger aspect of the meeting has prompted some to accuse the Good Club of being a sort of Bilderberg Group for philanthropy, with an equally nefarious agenda of global power politics. If the members of the Good Club wish to wield their undoubted power, they may have to get used to the idea of doing it more openly.

THE AMERICAN TRADITION OF GREAT DONORS
BILL GATES
The co-founder of Microsoft is the biggest philanthropist the world has ever seen. Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he controls more than US$30 billion in assets. He has donated virtually his entire fortune to philanthropy, focusing on combating developing world diseases.

HENRY FORD
As well as being the father of the US car industry and the inventor of the modern production line, Ford was a major force in philanthropy. He made a vast fortune and left virtually all of it to the Ford Foundation, which by 2007 had more than US$13 billion in assets.

GEORGE SOROS
Hungarian-born Soros is a hugely successful US currency speculator and financier. But he is also well known for his philanthropic works. Focusing on political democratisation and creating an independent media, he has funded projects mainly in the former Soviet republics.

ANDREW CARNEGIE
This Scottish-born American industrialist made a fortune in steel and industry in the late 1800s. He focused his philanthropy on education, founding libraries, museums and universities. He wrote of the responsibilities of the wealthy in Triumphant Democracy and The Gospel of Wealth.

JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER
The man whose name became a byword for unimaginable wealth made his fortune in oil. He spent the last 40 years of his life in effective retirement, funding philanthropic causes. His special interests were in the fields of science and medicine.

- OBSERVER