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.
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!