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Version 2.0: The Giving Pledge Globalizes

March 01, 2013

(Bradford K. Smith is the president of the Foundation Center. This post originally appeared on the center's Transparency Talk blog.)

Headshot_brad-smith2They said that the Giving Pledge was "made in America," they said that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett didn't understand other cultures, and that their brand of philanthropy was inappropriate for (substitute the country of your choice). They were wrong: on Tuesday, February 19, the ranks of the 93 American billionaires who have already signed the Giving Pledge -- a public commitment to dedicate more than half their fortunes to philanthropy -- were joined by a dozen more representing eight countries. In one fell swoop, the Giving Pledge has gone global.

How could the skeptics have gotten it so wrong? Since the Giving Pledge launched in 2010, wherever my travels have taken me, I have heard Brazilians, Mexicans, Europeans, and Chinese go to great lengths to explain why it would never catch on in their countries. On the eve of the Gates/Buffett visit to China, I was interviewed on CCTV2 (the English language channel of China's state-controlled media conglomerate) by a reporter who bombarded me with question after leading question to prove that theirs was a fool's errand. It was all I could do, in vain I suppose, to tell her that as hyper-developed as philanthropy may be in the America, it is alive and well and growing in China.

Here's what the skeptics fail to understand about the Giving Pledge:

Bill Gates is not (only) American -- While the world has struggled to come to agreement on standards for just about everything else that matters, Bill Gates created and proliferated a standard operating system -- Windows -- that came to be used in every corner of the globe where there was a desktop and a computer. He led a second revolution when he and his wife Melinda turned their personal wealth and vision to creating an internationally minded philanthropic institution. For both of these enormous achievements, Bill Gates represents a unique example of private success and public altruism on a global scale that many seek to emulate.

Billionaires are a culture unto themselves -- As much as they may be African, Asian, European, or Latin American, the wealthiest billionaires are also part of a growing, global culture of the ultra-rich. They are densely networked through business and investment ties and "hang" together in places like Davos, Aspen, and at the Clinton Global Initiative. In deciding to join something like the Giving Pledge they are more likely to look to the example of their fellow billionaires, wherever on the globe they may be from, than to pay credence to the skeptics in their own backyard.

Philanthropy is an aspiration -- Whether the Giving Pledge billionaires started out poor or were born into wealth, they see their fortune as a form of immense privilege. And, as their public pledges reflect, they recognize that they are in a position to do something about things in the world they feel could be better. As the ranks of the world's billionaires grow, we have the Giving Pledge to thank for elevating philanthropy to the level of a higher calling to which they can aspire.

The Giving Pledge is a social movement -- When the Giving Pledge was first announced, I blogged about it being akin to a billionaire social movement. Several years later it has become one. Its ranks have swollen to over a hundred, it has its own Web site, an independent resource in the Foundation Center's "Eye on the Giving Pledge," and periodic gatherings where pledgers share their experiences in philanthropy. As a movement, the Giving Pledge provides identity, recognition, and -- above all -- a network through which philanthropists can learn from one another. When you think about it, as wealthy as they are, the only place Giving Pledge members can turn for advice without being sold a service or pitched a project is probably to each other.

The most surprising thing about the globalization of the Giving Pledge is that anyone should be surprised that it is happening. Information is global, technology is global, many of the world's most pressing challenges are global, and ultra-wealth is global. Welcome to Giving Pledge 2.0, to be followed by future upgrades. I for one am eager to see where it will take philanthropy.

-- Brad Smith

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