Ethics Heroes: The Billionaires of “The Giving Pledge”

Encouraged by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, more than 30 U.S. billionaires have pledged to give at least half of their fortunes to charity. Buffett and Gates launched The Giving Pledge project in June. The Giving Pledge does not accept money, or try to steer its participants to any particular cause.  Nor is it a contract. The project asks billionaires to make a moral commitment to give away their wealth to charity.

This is clearly the ideal time for such an effort, when state and local governments are fighting deficits and less wealthy donors are having difficulty meeting prior levels of charity. It is also an eloquent statement by a group of productive, talented, hard-working and patriotic Americans that has been unfairly used too often as a cheap political target by the Obama Administration, Congress and the media.

Nothing bad whatsoever can come from The Giving Pledge.It is voluntary, and based on the best instincts of human nature, as well as the essence of community values. Its potential for accomplishing great things cannot be overstated. If the individuals on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans pledged half their net worth to charity, that would amount to $600 billion, according to Fortune magazine.The United States has roughly 400 billionaires, about 40 percent of the world’s total. As Michael Bloomberg, one of those who has made the pledge, told MSNBC, “If you want to do something for your children and show how much you love them, the single best thing — by far — is to support organizations that will create a better world for them and their children. And by giving, we inspire others to give of themselves, whether their money or their time.”

Amen to that.

The billionaires who have signed the pledge have all made statements about their motivations and aspirations, but Warren Buffett, I think, says it says it most eloquently:

“…More than 99% of my wealth will go to philanthropy during my lifetime or at death. Measured by dollars, this commitment is large. In a comparative sense, though, many individuals give more to others every day.
Millions of people who regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations thereby relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. The dollars these people drop into a collection plate or give to United Way mean forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures. In contrast, my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99% pledge.

Moreover, this pledge does not leave me contributing the most precious asset, which is time. Many people, including — I’m proud to say — my three children, give extensively of their own time and talents to help others. Gifts of this kind often prove far more valuable than money. A struggling child, befriended and nurtured by a caring mentor, receives a gift whose value far exceeds what can be bestowed by a check. My sister, Doris, extends significant person-to-person help daily. I’ve done little of this.

What I can do, however, is to take a pile of Berkshire Hathaway stock certificates — “claim checks” that when converted to cash can command far-ranging resources — and commit them to benefit others who, through the luck of the draw, have received the short straws in life. To date about 20% of my shares have been distributed (including shares given by my late wife, Susan Buffett). I will continue to annually distribute about 4% of the shares I retain. At the latest, the proceeds from all of my Berkshire shares will be expended for philanthropic purposes by 10 years after my estate is settled. Nothing will go to endowments; I want the money spent on current needs.

This pledge will leave my lifestyle untouched and that of my children as well. They have already received significant sums for their personal use and will receive more in the future. They live comfortable and productive lives. And I will continue to live in a manner that gives me everything that I could possibly want in life. Some material things make my life more enjoyable; many, however, would not. I like having an expensive private plane, but owning a half-dozen homes would be a burden. Too often, a vast collection of possessions ends up possessing its owner. The asset I most value, aside from health, is interesting, diverse, and long-standing friends.

My wealth has come from a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest. Both my children and I won what I call the ovarian lottery. (For starters, the odds against my 1930 birth taking place in the U.S. were at least 30 to 1. My being male and white also removed huge obstacles that a majority of Americans then faced.) My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.

The reaction of my family and me to our extraordinary good fortune is not guilt, but rather gratitude. Were we to use more than 1% of my claim checks on ourselves, neither our happiness nor our well-being would be enhanced. In contrast, that remaining 99% can have a huge effect on the health and welfare of others. That reality sets an obvious course for me and my family: Keep all we can conceivably need and distribute the rest to society, for its needs. My pledge starts us down that course.”

Here is the list of the billionaires who have made The Giving Pledge so far:

  • Paul G. Allen
  • Laura and John Arnold
  • Michael R. Bloomberg
  • Eli and Edythe Broad
  • Warren Buffett
  • Michele Chan and Patrick Soon-Shiong
  • Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg
  • Ann and John Doer
  • Larry Ellison
  • Bill and Melinda Gates
  • Barron Hilton
  • Jon and Karen Huntsman
  • Joan and Irwin Jacobs
  • George B. Kaiser
  • Elaine and Ken Langone
  • Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest
  • Lorry I. Lokey
  • George Lucas
  • Alfred E. Mann
  • Bernie and Billi Marcus
  • Thomas S. Monaghan
  • Tashia and John Morgridge
  • Pierre and Pam Omidyar
  • Bernard and Barbro Osher
  • Ronald O. Perelman
  • Peter G. Peterson
  • T. Boone Pickens
  • David M. Rubenstein
  • Herb and Marion Sandler
  • Vicki and Roger Sant
  • Walter Scott, Jr.
  • Jim and Marilyn Simons
  • Jeff Skoll
  • Ted Turner
  • Sanford and Joan Weill
  • Shelby White

One thought on “Ethics Heroes: The Billionaires of “The Giving Pledge”

  1. Pingback: Ethics Heroes: The Billionaires of "The Giving Pledge" | Γονείς σε Δράση

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