10% of Billionaires Commit to Give Half Their Wealth

Simply remarkable.

Just 6 weeks ago, Warren Buffett and Bill & Melinda Gates launched The Giving Pledge, an effort to encourage all of the nation’s billionaires to give away at least 50% of their wealth.

Today, it was announced that 10% of all billionaires have already publicly made the pledge.

The Giving Pledge will be holding a press conference later today, so more information will become available. But a list of the billionaires who have pledged is now available, including their Pledge letters.

The pledges are an interesting cross section of well known philanthropists as well as billionaires whose philanthropy is generally unrecognized. Each person making the pledge has written a letter describing why they have done so. The letters offer an amazing insight into the philanthropic impulse and will certainly become a standard part of philanthropy education efforts.

Fascinatingly, most of the pledge letters state that the person making the pledge plans to leave virtually all of their wealth to philanthropy. The reasons cited and the causes the pledgers plan to support are as varied as can be.

  • George Lucas writes of his own poor educational experience how he wants to help build a better education system.
  • Gerry Lenfest writes about the joy he and his wife experience when they give to a worthwhile cause.
  • George Kaiser admits that his charity is driven by guilt.
  • 36-year-old John Arnold and his wife Laura describe their disbelief that they ever came into so much wealth.
  • Ken Langone points to the spiritual purpose that the Pledge embodies.
  • Lorry Lokey describes growing up in the depression and explains why he flies coach.

But not every letter is a heartwarming call for equality and self-sacrifice. Maybe the most surprising name on the list to me was Larry Ellison, the CEO of the technology company Oracle who is generally described in the press as a self-styled bad boy who spends huge sums on jets and boats. [Update: I failed to mention in the first version of this post that Ellison is the third wealthiest person in the US, meaning that the top three wealthiest people have all said they’ll be giving away virtually all of their wealth].

Ellison’s letter makes it clear that he is also the “bad boy” of the Giving Pledge. But in doing so, he opens the door for participation in the Pledge by billionaires who might not resonate with some of the bleeding heart rhetoric of some of the Giving Pledge members.

While many of the letter writers address Warren Buffett directly, Ellison writes:

“To whom it may concern,

Many years ago, I put virtually all of my assets into a trust with the intent of giving away at least 95% of my wealth to charitable causes.  I have already given hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research and education, and I will give billions more over time.  Until now, I have done this giving quietly – because I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter.  So why am I going public now?  Warren Buffett personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be “setting an example” and “influencing others” to give.  I hope he’s right.”

I hope so too.

As I wrote in my column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy following the announcement of the Pledge, I hope that it “sets an example” for and “influences others” who come from every walk of life, not just billionaires.

If Larry Ellison can sign the pledge, maybe my hopes for a Second Great Wave of Philanthropy aren’t so far fetched!


  1. Trish says:

    I agree that the wealthy should do something with all that money–but to give to a notable charity doesn’t seem like the answer–there are so many poor folks here in America and the last few years people have lost their jobs and homes why can’t this money help the American people, buy grocies or keep warm inthe winter, when you are stuck in the lower middle class their is no help for these struggling people. Charities have money and some of the money they collect help feed heafty salaries-do we really need more wealth–just spread it around

    • Chelsea says:

      I agree that the jobless and homeless should receive a cut of this money, but directly giving handouts doesn’t seem like the answer to me.

      We need to address the bigger issue to prevent more people from becoming jobless and homeless. We need a better education system where kids and young adults learn financial responsibility and how to prevent this country from enduring another economic crisis. A lot of the aid we we have now is guilt driven and enables the poor under the guise of helping them.

      If you give a man a fish… you know?

  2. Lori Hope says:

    As Robert Frank wrote in his Wall Street Journal blog, “America’s rich have been searching for new status symbols in the wake of the Great Recession. Yachts, private jets, seaside mansions are so 2007. But being wealthy enough and generous enough to get on the Giving Pledge list may quickly become the ultimate badge of status–both in the U.S. and abroad.”

    Maybe, as you say, this signals the Second Great Wave of Philanthropy! As one who’s consulted to a private company (Give Something Back Business Products) that’s been donating more than half its profits to nonprofits for almost 20 years, I couldn’t hope for this more!

    Lori Hope

  3. Interesting that you pull out Larry Ellison’s letter, especially since Ellison’s signing of the pledge, as he indicates, only serves to make public something he already planned to do. I wonder the extent to which signers of the pledge are actually modifying future giving rates due to the pledge rather than simply signing on to say “hey, I’m already doing this”.

    • I found Ellison’s letter noteworthy because its message connects with a donor type that might not identify with many of the other donors.

      Your question about whether this is “new money” is important and asked by many. I’ll be writing more about this issue soon.

  4. Adnan says:

    It is amazing to see so many wealthy people publicly pledging to give back all the wealth. I also hope that it sets an example for other wealthy people and for the rest of us (you don’t have to be wealthy to give back)!

    I am really interested in seeing how this money is spent. I wonder if the Giving Pledge or someone else will take on the task of keeping tabs on where all this money is being directed. If everyone sets up their own version of Gates Foundation that might not be the best use of the resources. I would like to see the money being directed strategically to lots of social innovations and projects, instead of a handful.

    The energy of “Second Wave” could be harnessed to make sure it is multiplied to the maximum extent possible and if that happens, then, this pledge will turn into true impact!

    • Ken says:

      I wonder how much the government is losing in tax receipts due to this ruse. It seems that the country would be much better off if the (soon to be reinstated) estate tax was levied on all this wealth and the money put to public use. I’m surprised (well, not really) that all these liberal billionaires are not offering to make the donations AND pay the taxes that would normally be due.

  5. What about using some of this great generosity to fund restructuring our country so that more and more people are able to participate in the joy of giving while freed from concerns about healthy food, clean water, health care and meaningful/well compensated work.