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Year in Review: 'Giving Pledge' Off to Fast Start

December 29, 2010

Givingpledge Although few people had heard of it before June, the Giving Pledge campaign launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates generated enough discussion -- pro, con, and in between -- over the next five months to make it one of the top philanthropic stories of 2010.

Conceived over the course of a year by Buffett and the Gateses, the campaign was unveiled to the public in a June Fortune magazine article in which the billionaire philanthropists laid out their plan to encourage the nation's wealthiest individuals to give at least half their fortunes to charity, either during their lifetimes or at death.

The first phase of the campaign targeted individuals on the Forbes 400 -- an annual list compiled by Forbes magazine of the four hundred wealthiest Americans. In 2009, individuals on the list had a combined net worth of roughly $1.2 trillion. Were every member of the list to sign the pledge -- which, as Buffett and Gates noted at every opportunity, is a moral rather than a legal commitment to give -- it would translate into an extra $600 billion for charitable causes. With total U.S. charitable giving surpassing $300 billion in each of the previous three years, many were quick to label the campaign one of the most important developments in philanthropy in decades. Others were more skeptical, noting that the short-term impact of the campaign was likely to be modest -- in part because many of those signing the pledge already were well-established philanthropists whose giving wasn't likely to increase in a significant way as a result of their participation.

Six weeks after the campaign was unveiled to the public, the first cohort of Giving Pledge signatories -- forty in all -- was announced. It included Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe; Oracle Corporation co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison; Hilton Hotels co-chairman Barron Hilton; Business Wire founder Lorry I. Lokey; filmmaker George Lucas; eBay founder and chairman Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam; former eBay president Jeff Skoll; media tycoon Ted Turner; and New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. In August, Buffett publicly stated that he was thrilled by the response and praised many who had signed on for committing "to sums far greater than the 50 percent minimum level."

With the campaign well launched, Buffett and the Gateses set their sights on other countries, in particular emerging economic powerhouses such as China and India whose economies are growing rapidly and generating enormous wealth. In October, Buffett and Bill Gates traveled to China -- second only to the United States in the number of individuals with a net worth of at least a billion dollars. Despite press accounts of meeting invitations unopened and widespread confusion over the purpose of their trip, the two Americans managed to meet with fifty or so Chinese tycoons to discuss philanthropy and pronounced the trip a success.

Meanwhile, back home, another seventeen individuals and families had signed on to the pledge by early December. They included America Online founder Steve Case and his wife, Jean; Wall Street financier Carl Icahn; and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg -- at 26 the youngest person, by a significant margin, to sign the pledge so far. "People wait until late in their career to give back. But why wait when there is so much to be done?" Zuckerberg said in announcing his participation in the effort. "With a generation of younger folks who have thrived on the success of their companies, there is a big opportunity for many of us to give back earlier in our lifetime and see the impact of our philanthropic efforts."

Philanthrocapitalism co-authors Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, vocal supporters of the campaign, agreed. Writing on their blog in December, Bishop and Green said that billionaires who signed the pledge should turn their attention quickly to what they planned to do with the money they had committed, adding, "The sooner that conversation begins, the better."

Whether he agreed or not, Gates, ever the ambitious visionary, expressed his hope toward the end of the year that the campaign would not only increase philanthropic giving in the U.S. and around the world, but that it would improve the practice of philanthropy as well. "We will never be able to measure how much the group gets people to do more giving or do it in a better way," Gates told the New York Times. "However, I think the impact is likely to be quite positive."

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