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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"My message has been ... that these are achievable goals, and, indeed, there are many demonstration projects on how they can be achieved," says Sachs. "But they require a scaling-up of resources from the rich world in general to enable the poorest people in the world to gain access to the crucial breakthrough technologies, whether it's bed nets or vaccines or antiretroviral drugs and so forth."Skip to next paragraph
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Though Gates and Buffett have only convinced a fraction of the world's billionaires to commit to the Giving Pledge so far, experts say even a relatively modest expansion in the number of wealthy who give, or in the amount they donate, could have a transforming effect.
To shake loose more money, Buffett and Gates, besides their stature and salesmanship, bring one other important tool to the task: recognition. Studies conducted by Golden Gate University's Ms. Strahilevitz show that when people know that other people are aware of their giving, their donations rise as much as fourfold. "We all want to believe that we're good, and we all want others to think that we're good," she says.
Yet money isn't going to magically fall into the tin cups of the world simply because two titans of capitalism command it. The tentative response so far from European elites is a reminder that not every culture shares American values of philanthropy, and some in the donor community worry that the Giving Pledge could, in the end, even depress giving: Smaller contributors may decide that the billionaires are going to fund the necessary projects, so they don't need to.
"Then we give up our collective responsibility to address these things, because, well, Bill Gates is going to take care of them, or Warren Buffett," says Mr. Wilmot.
This raises even larger questions about the nature of social obligation. The American model of voluntary associations and its 20th-century tradition of massive charitable foundations makes some worry that the general welfare of society hinges too much on the individual values of a few.
By all accounts, most of the current signatories to the Giving Pledge do express a strong commitment to the common good. Yet many are also understandably adamant that they be free to give to projects of their choice.
As Bruce Bickel, senior vice president of PNC Wealth Management and director of its private foundation management services, describes it this way: "Our role is to crawl inside that family's mind and heart, find out what their beliefs and values are, what legacy they want to perpetuate, and then help them come up with a way to live out those beliefs and values by giving grants away to organizations that we've identified."
Many of the 27 family foundations he helps run focus mostly on "survival grants" – assistance with health care, housing, and disaster relief – as well as education and research.
But ethicists like Wilmot suggest that what's beneficial for a society should be decided more collectively. While he recognizes the need for billionaire elites like Buffett and Gates to focus their wealth and skill in the pursuit of the common good, the "social contract" should not rely simply on noblesse oblige. "In the end, we're a society, and there are common goods we need to promote," he says.
Maybe so. But as Mr. Turner was scurrying around Africa recently, talking to heads of state and the needy about projects to support, he wasn't focused on grandiloquent arguments about the nature of philanthropy. He was trying to help eradicate polio.
"I believe that my contributions of more than $1.3 billion to various causes over the years is the best investment I've ever made," he said in an e-mail, adding: "We need a long-term plan for humanity. We need to make sure that future generations inherit a better world."
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