They want to make a difference. They want to make the world a better place. They’re grateful for the cards they drew—or, in Buffet’s rather graceless phrase, for winning “the ovarian lottery”—and want to extend the same opportunities to those less fortunate.
To a large degree, the Giving Pledge signatories seem to be singing from the same hymnbook. That’s literally true, in some cases: The Old and New Testaments get a lot of credit—“God loves a cheerful giver,” say David and Barbara Green, founders of Hobby Lobby, quoting 2 Corinthians—although the whiz kids of Silicon Valley are silent on that score. Whether they grew up in the most modest of circumstances or were born into privilege (viz. David Rockefeller), they came from families that traditionally lent a hand to those less comfortable than themselves. “Philanthropy is in the DNA of my family,” says Charles Bronfman, the Canadian billionaire whose fortune comes from the Seagram Company. They now find themselves in possession of far more money than most of them had ever imagined (with some notable exceptions, viz. David Rockefeller) and, having set aside enough funds to assure more-than-comfortable lives for themselves and their children, want to use what’s left over—and that’s often 90 percent of their wealth, or more—to “give back” by helping others.
Another important issue for many is ensuring that their children aren’t crippled by a huge inheritance. “I’m not a big fan of inherited wealth,” says oilman T. Boone Pickens. “It generally does more harm than good.” The concern seems to be universal. Manoj Bhargava, who was born in India, immigrated to the U.S. and made a fortune from 5-Hour Energy drinks, says, “My choice was to ruin my son’s life by giving him money or giving 90%+ to charity. Not much of a choice.” “The decision I made is not just an attempt to be remembered as a philanthropist,” says Vladimir Potanin, a Moscow banker. “I also see it as a way to protect my children from the burden of the extreme wealth, which may deprive them of any motivation to achieve anything in life on their own.” In fact, several of the billionaires note proudly that their children are already participating in their philanthropic activities or running foundations of their own.
Those are among the most common reasons expressed by the Giving Pledge letter writers for promising to give away vast sums of wealth. But a great many of these billionaires also repeat a less predictable refrain: Giving, they say, simply makes them happy. George Kaiser, who made his money from oil and banking, describes philanthropy as “intoxicating.” In fact, many of these billionaires declare, they get more joy out of giving the money away than they had in accumulating it. (Only Pickens, dependably contrarian, shifts the balance slightly. “I’ve long stated that I enjoy making money, and I enjoy giving it away,” he wrote. “I like making money more, but giving it away is a close second.”)
Still, if the signatories are singing the same tune, some have added grace notes about the joy of giving that are worth repeating here. “To make quarterly profits is one thing,” says Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus, “but changing just one life is so much better.” Richard Branson, the English business magnate and investor who appears to be having a great time whatever he does, remarks, “‘Stuff’ really is not what brings happiness. Family, friends, good health and the satisfaction that comes from making a positive difference are what really matters.” Bhargava, a onetime monk who has founded a charity in rural India, notes, “We may not be able to affect human suffering on a grand scale but it will be fun trying.” And Patrice Motsepe, a South African mining magnate who has donated money to improve life in impoverished rural areas of Cape Town, refers to the Bantu concept of Ubuntu, or human kindness, to explain that “your well-being, happiness and success is dependent upon and influenced by the well-being, happiness and success of others.”
For most of the signatories, the opportunity to change people’s lives for the better seems to be motivation enough. Unlike Andrew Carnegie, whose example is mentioned in a few letters, virtually none of these billionaires seem to cherish the notion that philanthropy can protect capitalism from socialism, or worse. In fact, what’s conspicuously absent from most of these letters is a discussion of the potential political role that philanthropy might play. At most, for the American philanthropists—on both sides of the political aisle—there is the hope that their contributions can strengthen the country by doing what government can’t or won’t. For example, investor and erstwhile Wall Street raider Carl Icahn writes that he hopes to “maintain America’s position as the world economic leader” by making its educational system more competitive. Without significant changes, he adds, “we will soon lose our hegemony.” A similar concern is sounded by Peter Peterson, the investment banker, former U.S. Commerce Secretary and leading fiscal conservative, who hopes to change the nation’s course because its growing debt and low savings rate “leave us very vulnerable and even threatens our national sovereignty.”
Similarly, only a few signatories weigh in one of the topics currently in vogue in some philanthropic circles—the notion that giving can potentially reap tangible rewards for the giver. AOL founder Steve Case does suggest that there may be opportunities to address a societal problem through a business “that is focused on doing well while doing good.” And hedge fund manager William Ackman goes so far as to assert that “I am quite sure that I have earned financial returns from giving money away,” although that’s occurred incidentally through the friendships he has formed and the advice he’s received as a result of his charitable activities. Regardless of the bottom line, he concludes, “Life becomes richer, the more one gives away.”