38 Billionaires to Donate Half of Their Fortunes to Charity

For the rest of the über-rich, the pressure's on

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The Giving Pledge, brainchild of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, has finally gone public with a list of 38 billionaires who will be giving half of their fortunes to charity. The public pledge is designed to encourage other wealthy individuals to follow suit. Also, it's already managed to jump-start an interesting public discussion about philanthropy, particularly as it applies to the very rich.

  • This Is Different  "Some philanthropic acts feel at best insubstantial, at worst insincere," writes New York Magazine's Nitasha Tiku, citing 1 percent profit donations for some companies. "This is not like that. ... Sure," she continues, these billionaires "only need a tenth of their money to live on. But we always imagined that if we ever made the kind of wealth that lasted generations (ha!), we'd be thrifty about it in case our grandchildren turned out to have the work ethic of Paris Hilton."
  • The American Culture of Philanthropy  In a Guardian piece wondering how British billionaires could be persuaded to follow the lead of their American counterparts, Matthew Bishop and Michael Green thoughtfully examine what it is the Giving Pledge has actually done: "This is," they comment, "serious money and marks another milestone in the resurgence of philanthropy--what we call philanthrocapitalism--over the past decade." They also note that while "richesse oblige is part of American culture," the Giving Pledge "marks a change in strategy," an upping of the ante. "The peer pressure to give is great (for donors large and small), which is what makes US givers three times as generous as Britons. The Giving Pledge has upped that peer pressure and set an expectation that only serious generosity gets you into the new A-list of philanthropy." Though critics of the pledge point out folks like Bloomberg might have planned to give away their money anyway, doing it publicly is key.
  • Pressure Is On  "The group's hope," writes Benjamin Sarlin at The Daily Beast, "is that the initial announcement will go viral within ultra-rich social circles, gathering momentum as more donors pledge their fortune. Undoubtedly it's an issue that will come up in interviews with many billionaires who didn't make the cut." Sarlin himself points out two "conspicuously absent from the initial roster of pledges": Oprah Winfrey and George Soros.
  • Psyches of the Super-Rich  "The data," muses Doris Burke at Fortune back in June, when the plan first went public, "suggest that there is a huge gap between what the very rich are giving now and what the Gateses and Buffett would like to suggest is appropriate--that 50%, or better, of net worth. The question is how many people of wealth will buy their argument." She lists some of the "fears that people have about philanthropy" that came out in the dinners designed to marshal support for the pledge:
Some people talked about the emotional difficulty of making the leap from small giving to large. Others worried that their robust philanthropy might alienate their children. ... What does going public with big gifts do to the peace in your life? Won't pleas from charities be unending? How do you deal with giving internationally, which too often seems like throwing money down a hole? These are valid concerns, say the Gateses, the kind raised by people who want to feel as smart about giving as they were about making their money.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.