When the US economy was trying to escape from the ghost of recession, and Europe and the eurozone were fighting against unprecedented economic and financial turmoil, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett launched the philanthropic initiative we now know as The Giving Pledge. “The Giving Pledge is an effort to help in the most urgent problems of society, inviting the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to devoting more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charity work, either during their lifetime or after their death. With these words, investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates summarized the project in the summer of 2010, when they presented their proposal to the entire world. Two of the biggest fortunes on the planet were united in an effort to provide help at a moment of extreme economic uncertainty. And not only that: they urged all the billionaires in the United States to follow their example.
Buffett and Gates believe that uniting a group of people who will make public their intention to donate most of their fortunes, will help inspire other billionaires to do the same and to talk openly about philanthropy. At the same time, they hope that The Giving Pledge will become a forum where members can exchange ideas and knowledge about how to efficiently donate or bequeath money.
The first call for action from Buffett and Gates was well received by America’s richest. Forty families, and individuals of wealth have already joined the cause. The vast majority comes from California, but there are representatives of 13 different states, whose fortunes originated from very diverse economic activities. Among them: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Thomas S. Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza; filmmaker George Lucas; Barron Hilton of the Hilton Hotel Chain; Ted Turner, founder of CNN; Larry Ellison, founder and CEO of Oracle, and a long list of others.
Some of these families had already committed to donating to charity most of their fortunes, but still wanted to join this new initiative, which does not require that money be allocated to specific associations or charitable causes. Equally, individual motivations do not have to be the same for this elite group. For example, David Rockefeller, the famous American banker of German origin and patriarch of the Rockefeller family, wrote in the letter where he explains the reasons that prompted him to join The Giving Pledge: “our family strongly believes that those who have benefited the most from the economic system of our nation, have a special responsibility to return this benefit to our society in a meaningful way”.
For their part, Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest say they feel good about themselves. Lenfest made his fortune when he sold his cable company to Comcast in 2000, a US $1.2 billion transaction. “The greatest achievement in life is how you feel about yourself. Donating your wealth and seeing that it has a positive impact on other people, greatly improves this feeling,” they remarked in their letter of motivation.
Forbes magazine estimates that these first 40 American members of The Giving Pledge could donate about 150 billion dollars to philanthropic purposes, taking into account the fortunes they have accumulated.
The project initiated by Buffet and Gates is not limited to the United States. By now, other fortunes from around the world have made the pledge. Billionaires from Australia, Germany, India, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom are already part of the project.
Some additions to The Giving Pledge family are: Virgin’s Richard and Joan Branson, British investor John Caudwell; Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest and his wife Nicola; Investment Funds Manager Christopher Hohn; British Telecommunications tycoon Mohamed “Mo” Ibrahim; South African mining magnate Patrice Motsepe and his wife Precious; Ukrainian investor Victor Pinchuk; Hasso Plattner, founder of the German company SAP; Vladimir Potanin, president and founder of the Russian entity Oneximbank; Azim Premji, the second richest man in India, founder and owner of Wipro Technologies; David Sainsbury, British politician and businessman; and Vincent Tan Chee Yioun, a Malaysian investor.
Their nationalities may be different, but the aim of these philanthropists remains the same. “I am also very conscious that a person needs very little money to support himself and his family, and it brings home the sense that when one is blessed with great wealth, beyond what is needed, one has a moral and social responsibility to make good use of that money.” That is how Vincent Tan Chee Yioun explained in a letter his reasons to join the project.
With this group of international philanthropists and other Americans who have joined this cause, The Giving Pledge already has more than 100 members committed to donating their fortunes without any legal contracts. “Our hope is that the effort will continue for generations to come,” declared Buffett and Gates. ■