The Giving Pledge - A Big Idea for Philanthropy

The Richest Giving Circle Ever

Bill and Melinda Gates
Bill and Melinda Gates started the Giving Pledge with Warren Buffett. Getty Images News

Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett are the 21st-century counterparts to the Gilded Age's Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

Although not quite the “robber barons” of that age Gates and Buffett have gone further than those tycoons of old by not only giving away heaps of money to charitable causes but forming the biggest billionaire's club in history.

The Giving Pledge, the most gilded of giving circles, was founded in 2010 to encourage the wealthiest of the wealthy to give most of their fortunes away to philanthropic causes, either before they die or right afterward.

This giving circle has two requirements: members must have a billion dollars and be willing to give most of it away.

Gates and Buffett, long-time partners in charitable giving, started with American billionaires but have now expanded across the globe. Today 158 billionaires have signed on to the Giving Pledge, representing $786 billion in net worth. Plus, these pledgers come from all age groups ranging from their 30s to centenarians.

Although the Giving Pledge has become global with members from 20 countries, most of the tycoons who have signed up are American born and bred. They range from Paul G. Allen (co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates) to Jean and Steve Case (of AOL and Time Warner fame) to Michael R. Bloomberg (NYC Mayor and media tycoon) to Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook). The names make up a who's who list of historic proportions.

At the Giving Pledge website, there is a short bio and a letter that each member wrote upon joining this elite club.

The letters set out broad goals and philosophies of each philanthropist's charitable giving.

The Giving Pledge is not a legal contract but a simple "moral" agreement that each member plans to follow through on his or her commitment to giving away most of their fortune to charity.

Each Giving Pledge member develops an individual giving plan.

The group does not make joint decisions. However, they do get together every couple of years to socialize and self-educate about global social issues, how to give more effectively, and how to measure success.

Criticisms of the Giving Pledge

The Giving Pledge has received its share of criticisms. Some fear that all of this potential giving just represents a significant tax break. Others say that since some of the money just goes to family foundations, it will not be spent for many years, thus not funding the most immediate needs of society.

Then there is the fear that so much private money will be used to influence public policy, not always in a good way.

Those criticisms have not daunted Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffett. They firmly believe that their billions can do good around the world and also set an example for others to give generously. Bill Gates, responding to an article in the NY Times, said this about his hopes for the Giving Pledge:

"We will never be able to measure how much the group gets people to do more giving or do it in a better way….However, I think the impact is likely to be quite positive."

Also, effective giving and measurable results have been a mantra of the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation since its beginning, and it is not surprising that many in this group of philanthropists would take up that intent.

What Gates and Buffet envisioned when Buffet made his historic contribution to the Gates Foundation some years ago has been well expressed by the 2017 letter Bill and Melinda sent to Buffet outlining what had been accomplished so far with that money. The letter is full of data, statistics, and hard evidence that progress on many fronts was made.

Also, many of the younger billionaires come from the ranks of the tech industry and exhibit the same entrepreneurial spirit toward their charitable giving as their business enterprises.  Tech titans who have joined the Giving Pledge include Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Larry Page of Google, and Tesla CEO Elan Musk.

Will this group change the world and solve some of our biggest social challenges? We will have to wait to make final judgments.

Recommended Reading:

The Giving Pledge, Current Profiles

Charlie Rose Interview with Gates and Buffett, 2013

Eye on the Giving Pledge, Glass Pockets, the Foundation Center

2017 Letter to Warren Buffett from Bill and Melinda Gates