The Millionaire Giving Pledge

My column in this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy focuses on the Gates/Buffett Giving Pledge and argues that the real impact of the Pledge is the potential for it to spur more every day donors to give more rather than simply trigger the giving of the billionaires which the Pledge focuses on.

I tried to calculate the potential dollar impact of a shift in the giving of every day donors and argued that it could result in a 100% increase in annual giving vs. a maximum of a 10% lift if every billionaire fulfilled the pledge. But yesterday Ryan Allis, writing on the Social Entrepreneurship blog at Change.org gave a more compelling break down of the numbers that illustrates how vastly more important the giving patterns of major donors is compared to the ultra, ultra wealthy.

Ryan wrote:

There are 10 million millionaires in the world, with a total net worth of $39 trillion according to the 2010 Merrill Lynch and Cap Gemini World Wealth Report. The average millionaire has $3.9 million.

Excluding the $1.3 trillion of the Forbes 400 [Sean: these are the billionaires targeted by the Giving Pledge] from this $39 trillion, there is $37.7 trillion in assets among millionaires globally. What if there were a Millionaire Pledge?

If through a directed effort we can get 20% of global millionaires to commit to give half of their wealth, instead of an extra $120B for philanthropy, we’d have an extra $3.8 trillion.

Did you get that? If every billionaire commits to giving away 50% of their wealth, we’d see billions of dollars going to philanthropy. But if just 20% of millionaires commits to giving away 50% of their wealth we’d see trillions of dollars going to philanthropy.

Most people can’t even begin to grasp the difference between a billion and a trillion. Below is the best illustration I’ve seen.

This is a billion dollars of stacked $100 bills:

$1,000,000,000 (one billion dollars)

This is a trillion dollars of stacked $100 bills:

$1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion dollars)

(Illustration from PageTutor.com)

Wow.

The idea of giving away 50% of your wealth isn’t something to suggest lightly. It is certainly not something that I would personally be willing to do today. But for a billionaire or for a millionaire at the right stage of their life and given the right circumstances, it is entirely possible.

In fact there is an excellent group called Bolder Giving which launched in 2007 with The 50% League to tell the stories of people from all walks of life who had committed to giving away 50% of their wealth. Interestingly, Patty Stonesifer, former president of the Gates Foundation and now an advisor to Gates and Buffett was quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy as saying that the efforts of Bolder Giving were one of the reasons they thought the Giving Pledge was achievable.

8 Comments

  1. Sean- Thanks for the thoughtful article. In fact, Bolder Giving launched two weeks ago the Bolder Giving Challenge, which invites people from all financial backgrounds to take the next step in becoming bolder givers. Essentially our hope is to do exactly what you discussed, to reach out to the millionaires and really people across the economic spectrum and invite them to consider how they could give more. For some, this could be taking major steps like giving 20%, 50% or more while for others it could be making one gift bigger than they have done before or even figuring out how much they could give. It takes only 2 minutes to take the Challenge at http://www.boldergiving.org.

  2. Janelle says:

    Sean,
    I agree with your analysis of what could happen with “every day donor” gifts as a result of the Millionaire Giving pledge. I just wanted to add that I also percieve a potential positive impact on the culture of philanthropy here in America. Namely, that more individuals, of all income levels, may adopt charitable giving as an every-day part of their lives – something they do on a regular basis. This, in turn, may create a culture of “every-day” philanthropists for generations to come. We cannot ignore the present value of a future philanthropist. :)

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful posts.

  3. “the present value of a future philanthropist”… I love it!

  4. Bill Messina says:

    it’s a wonderful and long needed idea but what billionaires have actually made a pledge to give away half their billions ?

  5. Melinda Tuan says:

    Sean, do you know if there’s a list of the billionaires who have signed the pledge to date (or is the article you reference above the best/most recent source)?

  6. LB says:

    Is there anyone out there that helps people in need? I am not a non profit agency. but I got laid off, my bills are falling behind-the necessity ones are the most important ones, I cannot purchase groceries, and things are getting out of hand. I cannot handle the stress much longer. I keep praying for a miracle. Can somone one help and all say a prayer for my miracle please? Thanks and God Bless