Although the Giving Pledge, a campaign launched in 2010 by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to encourage the nation's wealthiest individuals to commit the majority of their wealth to philanthropy, picked up a number of new participants in 2011, its biggest accomplishment may have been to inspire others to launch similar campaigns.
The positive buzz around the campaign was deflated a bit in January when Mexican multi-billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, the wealthiest individual in the world, declined to sign on, saying in a CNBC interview that he believed businesspeople should help fight poverty but that he wasn't convinced giving to charity was the best way to do so. A couple of weeks later, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported the somewhat surprising news that relatively few of the American billionaires who had signed the pledge made large gifts in 2010.
Stilll, a total of sixty-nine individuals and families had signed on to the campaign by April. Newcomers to the group included Joyce and Bill Cummings of the Cummings Foundation; Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio and his wife, Barbara; oil tycoon Harold Hamm and his wife, Sue Ann; Silicon Valley entrepreneur Vinod Khosla and his wife, Neeru; and Atlantic Philanthropies founder Charles F. Feeney, a vocal advocate of "giving while living" and the source, at year's end, of a huge $350 million gift to Cornell University, his alma mater.
Indeed, it was easy to argue, though the evidence is anecdotal, that the campaign was having precisely the kind of impact -- in the United States as well as in countries such as China and India –- that Buffett and the Gateses had hoped it would. In March, Indian entrepreneur Grandhi Mallikarjuna Rao, chairman of the Bangalore-based GMR Group, pledged $340 million to improve education among the most underserved segments of Indian society. A few months later, a report from global consulting firm Bain & Company found that private charitable giving in India had risen from 0.2 percent of GDP in 2006 to between 0.3 and 0.4 percent in 2011, putting it ahead of other countres with rapidly growing economies.
Back home, sixty-one of the sixty-nine signers of the pledge arranged to meet at an Arizona resort in early May to compare notes on their giving. The meeting, which covered a broad range of topics, was an opportunity for those present to meet and learn from each other. As energy tycoon George Kaiser, chairman of BOK Financial Corporation, founder of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, and the largest contributor to the Tulsa Community Foundation, told the Associated Press, "Being able to share with other people who are agonizing about the same decisions is extraordinarily useful."
As the economy weakened over the summer, media coverage of the Giving Pledge all but dried up. The campaign did not announce any new signers after April, and, as the nation began to focus on issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement, it received few mentions in the press after September.
But others were paying attention. In June, the Give Back Hollywood Foundation paid tribute to the campaign by launching its own Hollywood Pledge to encourage celebrities to publicly declare their support for charities nearest to their hearts. And a week later, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., launched Philanthropy's Promise, an effort to encourage leading U.S. foundations to dedicate a majority of their grant dollars to underserved communities and a significant amount of those dollars to strategies that address the root causes of social problems.
As NCRP executive director Aaron Dorfman said in September when announcing that an additional thirty-two foundations had signed on to the campaign, bringing the total number of participants to nearly a hundred: "We hope that the foundations of Philanthropy's Promise inspire others to think about how their philanthropic dollars can truly make a difference in people's lives and our communities. At this time of great need, it's not enough to give. We have to give smartly. We are delighted and grateful to have these thirty-two organizations on board."
Ten More Families Sign 'Giving Pledge' (4/29/11)