It began with a hush-hush dinner in New York four years ago, a gathering of about a dozen people with deep pockets and a serious commitment to philanthropy, to discuss ways to spread the gospel of giving. The event, organized by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, was deemed such as success that two more dinners took place over the next several months, with additional billionaires in attendance. Within a year, the conversations had led to a revolutionary idea—getting billionaires to make a “giving pledge” to give away at least half of their wealth during their lifetime or at death—and what is arguably the world’s most elite, if loosely organized, club.
Today, some 114 individuals and couples have signed the Giving Pledge. As the campaign’s website notes, the pledge represents a moral commitment—it is not a contractual obligation. Nor does it involve a pooling of assets, or dictate a direction for charity. And while some members of the “club” do meet periodically to discuss different approaches to giving, the expressed goal is simply to draw more billionaires into the culture of giving.
How could anybody find fault with that? But once the initial dropped-jaw reaction subsided, the pledge drew its fair share of critics. It has been called a public relations gesture amidst a global recession and a widening wealth gap. Particularly outside the United States, some people found it ostentatious to flaunt both private fortunes and personal generosity. And some have worried about the potential influence on public policy of foundations with multibillion-dollar endowments.
In this context, it’s useful to read the letters written by the giving pledgers at the urging of the Gateses and Buffet. While not everybody wrote a letter, an impressive number chose to go on the record with their personal histories, their reasons for giving and the objects of their philanthropy. Some embraced the notion of the Giving Pledge with the ardor of the newly converted; still others observed that they had long ago established foundations and given away huge sums. “I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter,” noted Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle. Ellison, in perhaps the most taciturn letter in the bunch, added that he’d already donated hundreds of millions to medical research and education. “So why am I going public now? Warren Buffett personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be ‘setting an example’ and ‘influencing others’ to give. I hope he’s right.”
In the following section, Giving Magazine takes a close look at those letters and their authors. We present a photo gallery of about fifty of the signatories. We review their reasons for giving, and look at who—or what—is getting all that money. We discuss why the pledge has far fewer followers outside the United States. Finally, we explore the ways that some of these billionaires—many of them modern-day equivalents of the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the 1800s—amassed the fortunes they are giving away. Whether or not the Giving Pledge is changing the face of philanthropy, as Fortune magazine suggested when it was announced, the letters certainly reveal the face of philanthropists.