“America has been a land of opportunity for us, as it has for so many immigrants. We are proud to be Americans and we want to see our country strong and healthy.”
—Michele Chan and Patrick Soon-Shiong, Giving Pledge signers
It is no accident that America is both the most entrepreneurial and the most charitable country on earth. Our country’s leadership in business and our generosity in giving express the can-do spirit of a free society where individuals have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
The Giving Pledge organized by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett carries on this tradition. As of this writing, 40 billionaire entrepreneurs and their spouses have publicly pledged to give away at least half of their wealth during their lifetimes and after their deaths. Eighteen of the 40 had made such pledges even before the Gates-Buffett campaign, and several have already achieved that objective.
It is truly inspiring to read the signatories’ testimonials on the Giving Pledge website (see givingpledge.org). The variety of initiatives they support reflects the diversity of a pluralistic society where donors have the freedom to focus on the charitable purposes where they seek to make the greatest difference. Here are just a few examples:
- Karen and Jon Huntsman (founder of Huntsman Chemical): “As my sweet mother took her last breath in my arms and succumbed to the cancer she could no longer fight, I realized that our humanitarian focus must center on cancer. I saw with clarity the vision that the Huntsman fortune is a means to cure cancer and that my purpose on earth is to facilitate the research which will illuminate its mysteries.”
- Billi and Bernie Marcus (co-founder of Home Depot): “The Georgia Aquarium, which is the largest in the world, has given over 12 million visitors the joy of seeing fish and mammals that the overwhelming majority would have never had the opportunity to see in their lifetime.”
- Tom Monaghan (founder of Domino’s Pizza and Ave Maria University): “[T]he most important thing I believed I could do with the resources that I had been blessed with was to help build quality, faithful Catholic education.”
- Jeff Skoll (co-founder of eBay): His numerous charitable initiatives include Participant Media, which has produced 25 films, including Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman, a powerful critique of inner-city public education to be released this fall.
Many signers of the Giving Pledge come from humble origins. Tashia and John Morgridge, who went on to be CEO and chairman of Cisco Systems, remember a time when “all of our possessions fit into our 1950 Ford and all of our wealth fit into a back pants pocket.” The signers also attribute much of their success to the families that raised them. As Bill and Melinda Gates put it, “Both of us were fortunate to grow up with parents who taught us some tremendously important values. Work hard. Show respect. Have a sense of humor. And if life happens to bless you with talent or treasure, you have a responsibility to use those gifts as well and as wisely as you possibly can. Now we hope to pass this example on to our own children.”
There are of course very generous donors who will decide not to sign the Giving Pledge. Many donors give anonymously or keep a low profile in their grantmaking, calling attention to their grantees and not to themselves. Others are reluctant to commit to a specific percentage of their ultimate charitable contributions; they want to protect their flexibility to make other kinds of investments, for instance in new business ventures, where they can make an important difference in serving others. In addition, just as in growing a business, which is a trial-and-error process, the most effective philanthropy results from learning by doing. Many donors are at the early stage of their philanthropic careers; they aren’t ready yet to make crucial decisions such as how much they want to give away, and it would be counter-productive to force such decisions prematurely.
But whether or not they sign the pledge, all donors can gain inspiration from the gratitude and commitment of those who have. In the words of Laura and John Arnold of Houston (he runs a very successful energy-focused hedge fund): “We are deeply indebted to our community and our country for the many opportunities granted to us, and for a social and economic environment in which we could make the most of those opportunities. We consider it our responsibility to ensure the same opportunities for others.”
Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable.