How U.S. Philanthropy Is Inspiring Foreigners to Give

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have made it their mission to export American-style philanthropy—formalized, systematic, and professionalized giving done in the public eye—with mixed results.
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Jack Ma, chairman of China's largest e-commerce firm, Alibaba Group. Ma recently announced the creation of a multibillion-dollar trust that will focus on improving China's healthcare and environment. (Reuters)

The Giving Pledge, the campaign initiated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in 2010 to convince their billionaire peers to devote more than half their fortunes to philanthropy, was born out of a closed-door convocation. Gates and Buffett organized a dinner, hosted by David Rockefeller at the President’s House at Rockefeller University, for some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals, where they could discretely discuss their plans for giving away their money. A series of additional meetings followed, expanding the exclusive circle, all shrouded in “a cone of silence.”

But there was also a public, performative side to the Giving Pledge. Signatories—at the current moment, there are 127 of them—were asked to produce personal statements regarding their reasons for giving, which are featured on the Giving Pledge website. “The goal,” the site declares, “is to talk about giving in an open way and create an atmosphere that can draw more people into philanthropy.”

The intended audience was initially domestic, but within a few years, Pledge organizers directed their efforts to an overseas audience as well. Now the ranks of its signatories include individuals and families representing twelve different countries. Bill Gates made courting non-American, and especially non-Western, billionaires a particular project of his; Warren Buffett dubbed Gates’ evangelization of American-style philanthropy to the rest of the world his “trade mission.” The global campaign has had its share of bumps. The fine line that Gates and the other Pledgers have had to walk between pressuring and inspiring those wealthy Americans who have not yet joined becomes an even more precarious balancing act in the developing world, where the effort can take on imperialist overtones. On several occasions, Gates suffered notable public rebuffs from potential recruits.

But the last few weeks have injected new hope into the mission. A trip that Gates took to several Asian nations in April to discuss giving with many of the region’s high-wealth individuals resulted in notable philanthropic commitments from billionaires in Indonesia and Vietnam. The most promising development was the announcement by Jack Ma, the co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, that he would pour much of his personal wealth (which would be significantly boosted by an upcoming American IPO) into what would become one of Asia’s largest philanthropic trusts. This could mean as much as $3 billion directed to the causes of health care and environmental protection in China.

Gates, and the corps of other philanthropic advisers who have seeded these ventures, should be commended for their midwifery. But it is also worth noting that in exporting American-style philanthropy—formalized, systematic, and professionalized giving done in the public eye—Gates was also seeding debates over the relationship between philanthropy, income inequality, and democracy that have tracked his own giving. In this, the American experience is also instructive—and not only because that debate has sprouted up more robustly here than anywhere else. The United States offers other philanthropic models that could spread effective giving beyond the charmed circle of Gates' and Buffett's billionaire peers. Though less-heralded than the Giving Pledge, their impressive spread throughout the developing world is also a campaign worth celebrating--and supporting.

Even before the inauguration of the Giving Pledge, American philanthropists had sought to promote global giving. The massive new fortunes generated by entrepreneurs in emerging markets, through the liberalization, privatization, and globalization of their nation’s economies, set the stage for such efforts. The Rockefeller Family, and the several philanthropic agencies within its orbit (including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors) often took the lead in these campaigns. In 2001, David Rockefeller and his daughter Peggy Dulany established the Global Philanthropists Circle, “a global network for leading philanthropic individuals and families to collaborate and learn from their peers.” The Circle now includes more than 200 participants representing more than 20 countries around the world. Before the Giving Pledge, this Circle could claim the title of the “most elite club in the world,” with invitation-only meetings held at the Rockefeller Family estate and coordinated trips to observe the work of non-profits in the developing world in the company of high-level dignitaries.

Yet Gates could bring to the table financial resources and an ability to command media attention unmatched by any other possible philanthropic ambassador. In a sense, his talents and celebrity amplified both the perils and promise of the global Giving Pledge. On the one hand, the Pledge organizers clearly presented the American tradition of philanthropy, of which Gates is the most notable exemplar, as a model worth emulating. Holding up this model implicitly indicts contemporary modes of philanthropy in the developing world as inadequate or in need of reform. On the other hand, they also had to confront, and at least feign sympathy toward, indigenous philanthropic traditions and institutions, and to recognize the deep cultural divergences between these other countries and the United States that would make it difficult for American patterns of philanthropy to take immediate root. Similarly, they engaged foreign philanthropists as members of a globalized elite, as citizens of Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative, who shared a common understanding of the responsibility of wealth, while also recognizing that these philanthropists were embedded in local communities and were responsive to local and national pressures and imperatives. The originators of the Giving Pledge also had to concede the limits of their own impact, acknowledging that the cultivation of philanthropy in non-Western nations hinged more than anything else on broader economic, political and legal developments. The Pledge, in other words, required an uneasy mix of hubris and humility.

At the start, these tensions threatened to scuttle the overseas campaign. As the Foundation Center’s Brad Smith recalled in a blog post, “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.” There was grumbling about American condescension and griping about “efforts to impose Western philanthropic values” on non-Western traditions. The resistance seemed to be most pronounced in China and India, countries that now rank second and sixth, respectively, in number of billionaires, but that harbor legal, political, tax and regulatory systems that have hampered the growth of large-scale strategic philanthropy. The philanthropic sectors of both countries struggle with a lack of accountability and transparency. And there are also strong cultural forces at play that made it difficult for the Giving Pledge to find purchase. According to one recent assessment, “by tradition, rich Chinese keep their wealth within the family and make their donations privately, exhibiting benevolence without self-aggrandizement in the Confucian tradition. The money is meted out by the oldest generation and generally goes to sating immediate and, frequently, local needs—paying for hospitals, relief efforts, basic education and the like—and rarely to more strategic, long-range goals.” The Chinese government has also imposed significant hurdles to the development of independent NGOs and maintains strict limits on the types of programs foundations can fund (work in labor, ethic or religious affairs face special restrictions). Although India boasts a vast array of thriving nonprofits, and has a national government more favorable to an independent civil society, it still relies on an antiquated series of laws governing the sector, which have impeded the growth of philanthropic foundations there as well.

In August 2010, Gates and Buffett announced that the following month they would travel to Beijing to gather together several dozen of China’s wealthiest citizens to promote philanthropy. When some of the invited guests declined the invitation and word leaked that others had staked their attendance on the condition that they not be hit up for donations, the local Chinese media pounced on the story; sometimes they approached it as a gloss on American tone-deafness and arrogance and sometimes as an illustration of Chinese stinginess. No matter the interpretation, it seemed an uncomfortable affair for all involved. As one writer explained the decision of some invitees not to attend: “Attending and making a donation will make them look like greedy cowards who've been taught a lesson. [But] refusing is even worse.” Meanwhile comments posted on a leading Chinese website dismissed the insinuation that wealthy Chinese were not carrying their philanthropic weight as an American “conspiracy.” When the media suggested that only a small handful of Chinese would attend the Beijing meeting, Gates and Buffett issued a statement reassuring invitees that they did not mean to impose a particular model. “We know that the Giving Pledge is just one approach to philanthropy, and we do not know if it's the right path forward for China,” they wrote. Ultimately, some 50 guests did attend. One of them, recycling magnate Chen Guangbiao, claimed that he had amassed a list of 100 Chinese entrepreneurs who privately pledged to him that they planned to devote a significant part of their fortunes to philanthropy.

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Benjamin Soskis is a fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Policy at George Mason University. He is the co-author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On.

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