I had the opportunity last week to listen to the Giving Pledge conference call in which Warren Buffett fielded questions from the press and offered color on the purpose of the Giving Pledge. The big take away for me was that Buffett’s hope is that the Giving Pledge will lead to an increase in the general level of giving across society and that it will result in smarter philanthropy.
One of the major critiques of the Giving Pledge is that it is seemingly focused solely on generating more giving and makes little mention of better giving.
For instance, Pablo Eisenberg in an article titled The Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge Won’t Do Much Good Unless It Changes Philanthropy, wrote:
“Who will provide the leadership to increase the quality of philanthropy, not just the amount of money given? So much of the giving wealthy donors and foundations now do is lackluster and does not involve risk taking or innovation. Nor does it seek to solve urgent public needs. Will the new pledges mean more of the same?”
While the letter of the Giving Pledge calls only on billionaires to give at least 50% of their wealth to charity, the spirit of the Pledge seems to me to focus on smarter philanthropy.
On the conference call, Buffett repeatedly stated that the Pledgers would not be asked to fund any specific cause. Yet, he also spoke to his goal of bringing the Pledgers together to learn about how to do philanthropy well.
“We will gather the Pledgers to talk about big problems in philanthropy and learn as a group about being smarter about philanthropy…”
Most interesting to me was that Buffett spoke directly to my hope that the Giving Pledge will lead to an increase in the general level of giving across all demographics and income levels.
Speaking about his hopes for the Pledge, Buffett said:
“We want the general level of giving to step up…
We want the Pledge to help society become even more generous. We hope the norm will change towards even greater and smarter philanthropy…”
This trend toward a social norm of expecting smart giving instead of just more giving is showing up in other places as well. In a post I wrote in the wake of the Haitian earthquake titled The Rise of Smart Giving, I pointed to a number of indications that donors were seeking to give well, not just give more.
However, I think it is important to recognize the value laden nature of the word “smart”. When Pablo Eisenberg writes about the importance of how the Pledgers give, he is speaking to his hope that they will fund nonprofits that focus on reducing inequalities and not “established colleges, hospitals, and arts and cultural organizations.” Staying away from this sort of rhetoric seems to be a central goal of Gates and Buffett, who have repeated said that they will not ask donors to support the work of the Gates Foundation or any other specific cause.
It seems to me that rather than encouraging “smart” giving, we might seek as our goal a focus on “intentional” giving. While Eisenberg might view colleges and hospitals as “not smart”, another donor might view investments in education and health care as the best ways to reduce inequality. The key is that donors should make philanthropic decisions from a position of proactive intentionality. We can productively disagree about how to best practice philanthropy, but only if we take the time to come to our conclusions through an intentional process of educating ourselves about our options.
Smart philanthropy isn’t something you can train people to replicate. There is no single best approach nor any one cause that is more important than others. Instead, philanthropy is best practiced by people who take the time to become educated about the issue they wish to affect and who cultivate an attitude of mindfulness about the challenging endeavor of philanthropy.