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A Tale of Two Social Movements: The Giving Pledge and Occupy Wall Street

November 17, 2011

(Bradford K. Smith is the president of the Foundation Center. In his last post, he wrote about poverty and the marketization of philanthropy.)

Global_unrestMake no mistake: Occupy Wall Street, a "leaderless resistance movement" that claims to represent "the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%," and the Giving Pledge, "an effort to invite the wealthiest families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy," are two sides of the same coin. Neither one is a formal organization like Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association. Rather, they are social movements, more or less spontaneous gatherings of individuals who have come together because they feel things need to change and are ready to do something about it. What makes them such strange bedfellows, of course, is that the Giving Pledge is a billionaire social movement ensconced firmly within the upper echelons of the 1 percent of the population that is the object of Occupy Wall Street's ire.

What does a head-to-head comparison of the two movements reveal? Here's my take:

Numbers. In a recession-racked economy, the "99%" represents a virtually unlimited source of dissatisfied, disenfranchised, and pissed-off people. Some will drop out, some will join the Tea Party, and some will swell the ranks of protesters at Zucotti Square -- or wherever the movement decides to make its next stand. Only a precious few will achieve mega-billionaire status.

Advantage: Occupy Wall Street

Money. While the folks behind the Giving Pledge campaign are out wining and dining the Forbes 400, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are scarfing down take-out pizzas. Both movements are about money -- one trying to figure out how to constructively use a surplus of it, the other with how to secure a fair share of the economic pie for its supporters. If the Giving Pledge is successful in its stated goal of getting everyone on the Forbes 400 to give away half their wealth, it will double the $600 billion already dedicated to organized philanthropy in America.

Advantage: Giving Pledge

Leadership. When New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg recently tried to reason with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, he quickly discovered what the "leaderless" in "leaderless resistance movement" means. The Giving Pledge, of course, is spearheaded by the power trio of Bill and Melinda Gates and "the Oracle of Omaha," Warren Buffett.

Advantage: Giving Pledge

Communications. Both movements use communications technology in strikingly different ways. The Giving Pledge Web site bespeaks taste and class. (Indeed, its color palette is so discreet that if your monitor's brightness is set too high, you might miss it altogether.) Like the Giving Pledge, Occupy Wall Street posts letters on its "We Are the 99 Percent" Web site. But while those letters reference struggle and hardship, and the former talks about immense privilege and the desire to give back, both movements agree on the urgent need to create more opportunity in America for more people. Powered by an army of tech-savvy social media-driven volunteers, the main Occupy Wall Street site is expanding daily and even recruiting Swahili, Hausa, and Punjabi speakers as it networks with sister sites around the world. The Giving Pledge site grows at a snail’s pace, adding one billionaire letter at a time.

Advantage: Occupy Wall Street

Rallies. Billionaires, for lots of reasons, tend to go out of their way to avoid public attention. So the Giving Pledge's rallies take the form of dinner parties, a venue where wealthy philanthropists can talk about their dreams and the challenges they face away from the media spotlight and those eager to curry favor in exchange for a gift, a grant, a job. Slightly more rally-like was the first Giving Pledge "annual retreat" held in Tucson. Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, welcomes the media spotlight as a way to amplify its message and swell its ranks. Its rallies are big, messy, and controversial. Both movements employ tactics that are appropriate for their constituencies.

Advantage: Toss up

Cuisine. The menus at those Giving Pledge dinner parties have got to be a whole lot better than the New York-style pizzas in Zucotti Park.

Advantage: Giving Pledge

Impact. The most frequent criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it has failed to articulate its demands -- a criticism fueled by both fear and frustration. After all, a movement that believes "we don't need Wall Street and we don't need politicians to build a better society" would appear to be about deep change, and that can be unsettling for people who are comfortable with the status quo. The Giving Pledge, in contrast, has been criticized for being just that: a voluntary pledge. It's not a contract and there is no way to really verify how much of his or her wealth each billionaire who signs the pledge will end up giving. To the extent that they actually create private foundations -- as Bill and Melinda Gates have -- Giving Pledgers will be required to be more transparent, which will make it easier for the rest of us to measure the size and nature of their philanthropy.

Advantage: too early to tell

In the book that inspired the title of this post, Charles Dickens wrote:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way....

Whether the unfettered accumulation of wealth or the more equitable redistribution of that wealth best serves the public good has, for centuries, been the stuff of politics and, sometimes, revolutions. The Giving Pledge and Occupy Wall Street are signs of the times: radically different responses to the gnawing sense that something in our society has gone wrong and needs to be righted.

-- Brad Smith

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Posted by Lindsey Engh  |   November 18, 2011 at 04:37 PM

I think you misunderstand the general message of the Occupy Wall Street protests. It's not really about money - this is the most tangible outrage that folks can sink their teeth into - but rather a general outcry of the disintegration of American society. In that way, the OWS movement has a broader, and hopefully long-felt, reach than the Giving Pledge.

Since this person has articulated the real message much better than I could, I'll ask you to read this article if you choose to learn more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/how-i-stopped-worrying-and-learned-to-love-the-ows-protests-20111110?link=mostpopular2

Posted by Bradford Smith  |   November 20, 2011 at 06:07 PM

Thanks, Lindsey, for reading the blog post and making such a thoughtful comment. You make a good point about Occupy Wall Street not really being about money. In some ways money is a proxy and proponents of the fairer distribution of wealth and opportunity in society would argue that it is, at heart, a question of fairness or justice. The Giving Pledge crowd would probably argue that their movement is not really about money as well, rather how they can use it to create better society. What is important is that these two movements represent very different groups of people that are trying to do something rather than give up and accept that things can never be different. By the way, enjoyed your blog!

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