Warren Buffett Discusses Goals for Giving Pledge

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.

Buffett said,

“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.


  1. Interesting, Sean – “smart” vs. “intentional.” In some respects, shifting to “intentional” means lowering the bar, removing a judgment about what you’re giving to in favor or focusing on how you’re giving. But do you really think it’s the case that there is not “any one cause that is more important than others”?

    I’m not too hung up on “smart giving” as the phrase we need to use, but what I like about the judgment implied in that phrase is that it’s important to rank order causes, so that for any one giver, there’s giving that’s smart and not smart. To just say “intentional” maybe loses some of that flavor.

    Not to mention that those individual rank orderings will tend to cluster in interesting and probably non-obvious ways – the ways people determine what’s smart and not smart giving will be idiosyncratic enough that they won’t necessarily map onto political party or ideology. Which would be a really interesting way for people to organize themselves.

    • Chris, we might be slipping into semantics. But my point is that it is good that philanthropy is idiosyncratic. But that we want people to be thoughtful in their giving. If you intentionally fund something like the Awesome Foundation, I think that’s just fine. I think it is fine that Paul Brest and Bill Somerville have such different approaches to philanthropy and believe that they are both doing good in the world.

      I didn’t mean to belittle the word “smart” (I pointed to my own use the word recently), I was just trying to broaden the concept to say that we want donors give with intention rather than asking that everyone use some sort of rationale, SROI maximizing framework.

      Does that make sense?

      • Sure, that makes sense. Though I would have thought of “smarter” more along the lines of Mike’s quotes from Eisenberg than a rational, SROI maximizing framework. In other words, what I like about the quotes from Eisenberg is the idea that we might say certain ways of giving – certain rank ordering of causes – are smarter, not “just because,” because of X, Y, or Z reasons. And then when the discussion turns to those reasons, things get interesting. Your mileage may vary! 🙂

  2. Mike Bowerman says:

    I think Eisenberg’s thesis can best be summed with two passages from his article:

    1. “It can be argued that philanthropy not only perpetuates inequality but also, in recent years, has actually increased the inequities that we find in the nonprofit world and indeed across the United States.”


    2. “…before rushing out and lavishly celebrating a new era of “big giving” by billionaires, we should carefully calculate the potential for both good and bad and devise ways to avoid what might be unintended consequences of what appears at first blush to be a noble endeavor.”

    I think this post presents his position inaccurately by conflating it with Buffet’s use of the term “smart” — a vague concept that Eisenberg never used. Instead, he called for leadership, accountability, and asked questions about the timing of distribution — all valid points and consistent with the idea of “intentional” giving.

    Your concern about Buffet’s terminology is fair — it could be misinterpreted as pejorative — though I think you’d agree that he has the same intention in his use of the term as you do with other terms.

    • Hmm, I don’t think I’ve explained myself well Mike.

      You’ve done a nice job of summarizing Pablo’s argument. But he does cover a number of issues and a just as valid summary would look to his suggestion that the Giving Pledge won’t do much unless it changes philanthropy (which is the title of the column). The implication is that Pablo doesn’t think the philanthropy of wealthy people makes a difference (he belittles them for supporting colleges and hospitals) and doesn’t see the Giving Pledge as doing anything to change this.

      I was trying to point to Buffett explicitly saying that he wants to encourage better approaches to giving (which he calls “smart”). I was then trying to broaden the idea of what this should mean from “smart” which might lead people to a “SROI maximizing, Left Brain” approach to a more inclusive phrase like “intentional” (I even used “mindfulness”, right out of Zen teachings!) that was supportive of more Right Brain approaches.

  3. Mike Bowerman says:

    Thanks for the clarification Sean.

    I agree that Pablo is asserting that the Giving Plegde won’t do much unless it also changes philanthropy in some important ways. And I think Pablo he is using the arguments I highlighted to support his position. He seem to actually be going further than you are suggesting when you say he doesn’t think some giving is helping — he is actually saying that some giving is harmful. So we can imagine that from the pool of giving, some giving is moving society forward by some standard, and some things are moving it backward by that standard. If we get more of the bad and less of the good, we are not better off.

    It would better represent his criticism of giving to hospitals and colleges with the qualifier “some” — some giving to hospitals and colleges increases inequality. Perhaps he even feels most of it does, particularly in comparison to the alternative uses of those funds. I suspect there are examples of giving to both he would support, following the general logic of his argument about reducing inequality.

    Perhaps an important discussion that could come out of this is whether the goal of reducing inequality is fundamental to philanthropy, or optional, and whether or not some giving — such as some of that to colleges and hospitals — might actually work counter to that goal. Harvard’s endowment is the world’s largest and one of the most profitable in the world — is bequeathing one’s estate to Harvard actually entrenching the elite’s interests when it is more accessible to the rich and mildly talented than it is to the desparately poor and far more talented?

  4. Mike & Chris,
    I agree that both of your related points are well worth a debate. But in this post, I was just trying to point out that the goal of the Giving Pledge is to generate more AND better philanthropy. Many people have criticism the Pledge as just generating more and that it won’t matter if it isn’t better. I probably confused the issue with the smarter/intentional discussion.

  5. Great discussion — just catching up today. Maybe “smarter” also could mean pooled giving, as Buffet himself has done by pledging millions to the Gates Foundation rather than setting up another private foundation. The act of gathering these givers together to talk about issues and “smarter” ways to give (whatever that word means) is powerful in itself, as people learn from each other — and from those they believe they can serve with their gifts. We’ve all got to listen to the community at large, no matter where the money comes from, or charitable people can find themselves giving to “fix” things in one area when the community really has greater needs in another area entirely.