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Taking Private Philanthropy Public: Eye on the Giving Pledge

August 08, 2012

(Janet Camarena is the director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and leads the center's Glasspockets effort.)

Pledge_wordleTwo years have passed since Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates launched the Giving Pledge, an effort to convince the world's wealthiest families and individuals to commit more than half their assets to philanthropy. Initially, four families signed the Pledge, and after two months thirty-six more had joined them. Since then, the size of the list has more than doubled, with eighty-one families or individuals having now signed on.

Given the high profile and net worth of those involved, the launch of the Giving Pledge was accompanied by much fanfare and enthusiasm. Indeed, because philanthropy is often viewed as a private, family affair by those who engage in it, one could view participation in the Giving Pledge as a sort of Public Philanthropic Offering. So now that the bell has been rung, what's next?

Because the Foundation Center's Glasspockets site focuses on philanthropic transparency, we decided earlier this year to create a new feature, Eye on the Giving Pledge, to help track the charitable activities of Giving Pledgers and highlight some of the demographic trends and giving interests of pledge participants. Things like: Who has signed the Pledge? In which industries did they make their fortunes? Where are they based? What causes do they support? "Eye on the Giving Pledge" provides a way to follow how those who have made commitments are fulfilling their pledges.

The decision by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to use their influence and networks to drive more dollars to philanthropy should be celebrated. In addition to the leadership they've demonstrated with the Giving Pledge itself, the Gateses also are providing an excellent example for other Pledge participants by making their family foundation the principle vehicle for their philanthropy. At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Web site, the public can readily access a complete record of the foundation's grantmaking via its 990-PFs, determine whether its grantmaking is limited to pre-selected organizations, read press releases about noteworthy new grants, check out Bill Gates' annual letter detailing many of the foundation's successes (and some of its failures), and listen to a regular podcast featuring staff members sharing insights about the foundation's evolving grantmaking strategies.

Of course, many Pledgers will opt or continue to use other vehicles for their giving, vehicles that do not have the same reporting requirements as foundations. In those cases, we've done our best to capture examples of that giving from public information sources. Since we expect there will be gaps in our coverage due to the challenges inherent in tracking individual giving, we invite you to help us surface additional knowledge through an online form provided for that purpose.

With a combined net worth of roughly $400 billion, the eighty-one signatories to the Giving Pledge could end up contributing an additional $200 billion or more to charity over time. In addition to the tangible benefits of all that giving, we think it's refreshing to see some of the world's wealthiest people celebrated not just for the next deal but for their next gift -- and for publicly committing to use their wealth for the public good. Or, to put it another way, shouldn't actual giving be as celebrated as the intention to give?

-- Janet Camarena

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