Can Warren Buffett and Bill Gates save the world?
How the Giving Pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett's quest to get billionaires to donate half their wealth to charity, will impact philanthropy and the world's needy.
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At the same time, however, these efforts may represent a particularly American vision of the common good – one that includes proclaiming a cause with all the moral fervor of an evangelist. It's a vision that highlights stark differences between this country and much of the rest of the world.Skip to next paragraph
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"We're hoping that America, which is already the most generous society on earth, becomes even more generous over time," said Mr. Buffett in a conference call with reporters in August. "And the norm in this society, probably kicked off to a significant extent by Rockefeller and Carnegie, has moved toward more generosity, up and down, by the rich, the poor, and the in between."
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Consciously placing their efforts within this peculiarly American tradition of wealth redistribution, Buffett and Mr. Gates could very well revolutionize the intricate and complex world of global philanthropy – begun, in many ways, by those early 20th-century business behemoths. It could help infuse billions more into a worldwide charitable ecosystem in which thousands of charities and nongovernmental organizations scramble for the funds they need to do their work.
So far, both Buffett and Gates have backed their bullhorns with their own billions. Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway, the Nebraska holdings conglomerate, has pledged to give away 99 percent of his current $45 billion fortune (much of it to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and the Gateses have pledged to donate the "vast majority" of their $54 billion net worth.
In 1998, Ted Turner, who has signed the Giving Pledge, had already given a $1 billion gift to establish the United Nations Foundation, a private charity devoted to supporting United Nations causes and activities, like the current effort to vaccinate children in Nigeria.
Similarly, most of the 40 billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge have already been active in philanthropy. And while a few have promised to significantly increase their donations to reach the 50 percent mark, the initiative may not lead to an immediate jump in total giving. In today's harsh economic climate, Americans as a whole gave about $304 billion to charity in 2009, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to the Giving USA Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Still, the stature of Buffett and Gates in the world of commerce is such that their challenge could have an enormous effect on philanthropy in the years ahead.