The Giving Pledge and Critics’ Calls for Mandates

Now in its second decade, the Giving Pledge has grown from its original three signers to include 225 of the world’s richest philanthropists from 27 countries. As envisioned by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the pledge was “an open invitation for billionaires, or those who would be if not for their giving, to publicly commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.” It was an idea they formulated after speaking with philanthropists around the world about how best they might inspire their peers “to give more, establish their giving plans sooner and give in smarter ways.” 

Under the leadership of the Gates Foundation’s Philanthropic Partnerships team, Giving Pledge signatories enjoy opportunities to converse with each other about challenges, successes and failures, and also learn from advisors how best to increase the impact of their philanthropy. Peer engagement remains a hallmark of the project. Yet this noble, voluntary effort to increase charitable donations and help those in need has frequently been met with demands for mandates on philanthropists’ giving.  

From its earliest days, the Giving Pledge drew criticism from those observers who said it placed no time frame on a signer’s philanthropy. A billionaire’s bequest of a majority of his wealth to a foundation is valued the same as the charitable spending of a majority of his wealth in his lifetime. There are certainly advocates of the Giving While Living approach among the signatories—notably Chuck Feeney of The Atlantic Philanthropies, who adopted the pledge in 2011 even though he had already given the bulk of his considerable wealth to a foundation decades earlier. In his letter of commitment, Feeney said he had an additional suggestion for his fellow signers:

“I also want now to add my own personal challenge and encouragement for Giving Pledge donors to fully engage in sustained philanthropic efforts during their lifetimes. I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living—to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition. More importantly, today’s needs are so great and varied that intelligent philanthropic support and positive interventions can have greater value and impact today than if they are delayed when the needs are greater. I urge those who are taking up the Giving Pledge example to invest substantially in philanthropic causes soon and not postpone their giving or personal engagement.”

Feeney has always avoided suggesting that Giving While Living was the only way to manage one’s wealth, noting, “I’m not here to tell anybody what they should do with their money. If you make your money you do want you want with it.” Yet, his example has made an impact in philanthropy generally and among a number of Giving Pledge signers who have adopted his Giving While Living practices, among them Ray Dalio, Gerry Lenfest, Bernie Marcus, Pierre Omidyar, David Rubenstein, Ted Turner, David Weekley, and most recently, MacKenzie Scott. 

Today, the Giving Pledge continues to draw criticism  from those who would prefer that its signatories formally commit to spending more now, with Inside Philanthropy Senior Editor Philip Rojc saying “some of the most prolific philanthropists seem unable to keep up with their ever-expanding hoards.” Some detractors also demand that the Giving Pledge make public information about its signers’ philanthropy, tracking what percentage of wealth has been spent and what remains. Others target signers’ use of intermediaries like foundations and donor-advised funds, with the Institute for Policy Studies complaining, “What was intended to be a civic-minded initiative to encourage generosity is, instead, continuing the concentration of taxpayer-subsidized private charitable power.” In most cases, these Giving Pledge criticisms lead to a variety of misguided proposals for state and federal mandates on private foundation and donor-advised fund (DAF) payout rates, foundation and DAF lifespans, family foundation governance and, ultimately, legislation mandating a wealth tax

When they first conceived and signed the Giving Pledge, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet refused to dictate to those who joined them how, when and where they should direct their charitable dollars, and they have consistently maintained that position. It is both ironic and sad that an initiative based on its founders’ steadfast belief in the power of private voluntary action has generated so many demands for public intrusion and governmental edicts.

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