Giving While Living: What It Takes to Outlive Your Wealth

Giving Pledgers, take note—there’s a new effort to ramp up charitable giving in town. In January 2020, at the Davos World Economic Forum, Global Citizen launched its “Give While You Live” campaign, which asks billionaires to commit to giving away at least 5% percent of their wealth each year. Unlike the Giving Pledge, the only gifts that count are those made directly to charities—no messing around with foundations and donor-advised funds.

Global Citizen’s partners include some large American corporations (e.g., Johnson & Johnson, P&G, Cisco, Coca Cola) and media partners like MSNBC and Forbes. Forbes has worked with Global Citizen to implement new “philanthropy scores” as part of its Forbes 400 list. The scores are based on each billionaire’s generosity on a scale of 1 to 5, again counting only that portion of one’s wealth that has gone directly to what some call “working charities.”

Curious about some of the 2020 results? Jeff Bezos was scored a “1” for giving away less than 1% of his wealth, while Oprah Winfrey was a “2” (1% to 4.99%). New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft won a score of “3” (5% to 9.99%) and Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg a “4” (10% to 19.99%). Those who have given away 20% or more of their wealth, garnering the top score of “5,” include Warren Buffett, George Soros, John Arnold, Eli Broad, Amos Hostetter Jr., George Kaiser, Gordon Moore, Lynn Schusterman, Julian Robertson Jr. and Ted Turner.

But back to “Give While You Live.” Asking billionaires to commit to giving away 5% of their wealth each year hardly amounts to shedding your resources in your lifetime. There is, of course, the extreme example of MacKenzie Scott who—in 2020—made direct charitable donations of 16% of her 2019 $36 billion divorce settlement yet finds herself now with $53 billion. But there is also the research on private foundations that indicates that the mandatory annual payout of 5% supports perpetuity. Millions and billions are funny that way—they can grow faster than you can spend them unless you take some extreme actions.   

Arbitrary mandates are certainly not the answer. The decision to give over multiple generations or shut a philanthropic organization down in a donor’s lifetime rests—as it should—with the donor and his/her governing board. But if a campaign is using the catchy title of “Give While You Live,” shouldn’t Global Citizen be asking billionaires to consider giving away much more than 5% each year? After all, the organization’s goals are lofty: end extreme poverty around the world, protect the planet from the climate crisis, demand equity for all. Why not encourage more Forbes scores of 4 and 5? 

Or perhaps a few of those billionaires will voluntarily sign it all away, leaving themselves a very modest amount to live on, then establish a sunset date for their philanthropy and live long enough that they might indeed “bounce their last checks.” Chuck Feeney, who achieved all that, turns 90 this month. Maybe Forbes will take a deep breath, think about the $8 billion he gave to causes around the world through The Atlantic Philanthropies, and give him a philanthropy score of “10.” No one deserves it more.

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