A few weeks ago, the members of the Giving Pledge met in person for the first time. The event was very hush, hush (except for AOL founder Steve Case’s tweeting), but I’ve had an opportunity to speak with someone who was there. Partly the event was about giving the billionaires who have pledged to give away at least 50% of their wealth a chance to get to know each other. But one of the themes was an ongoing discussion of what the Giving Pledge should be all about.
In my own writing on the Giving Pledge, I’ve stressed the idea that the big opportunity is for the Pledge to affect the way everyday Americans think about giving. I’ve run an analysis that suggests that the Pledge, at best, might result in a 10% increase in total charitable giving if viewed in isolation. But if the Pledge encourages donors in general to give more, it could increase giving by 100%. Warren Buffett, the primary driver of the Pledge, seems to be thinking this way too and has said “We want the Pledge to help society become even more generous. We hope the norm will change towards even greater and smarter philanthropy…”
My understanding is that the opportunity for the Pledge to affect overall giving was an important topic of discussion at the gathering and that the group is still wrestling with what they might do to change the norm to “greater and smarter philanthropy”.
Here are a few ideas I have. I’d love to see more ideas added in the comments:
- The Pledgers, especially when they act under the banner of the Giving Pledge, are a form of “smart money”. They should recognize that who and how they fund will trigger others to act similarly, especially if they speak or write publically about the reasoning behind their decisions. Each of them should consider writing an annual letter outlining their prior year giving and their current thinking and model the letter on Warren Buffett’s annual letter to his investors (which has already served as the model for Bill Gates’ annual philanthropy letter).
- Those Pledgers who seek to engage in results-focused philanthropy should be public about what sorts of evidence nonprofits have provided them that have triggered them to give. There is still much debate about whether donors actually care about evidence and if they do, what sorts of evidence they seek and what sorts might actually reduce their empathy. It would be hugely useful to nonprofits who focus on results to know how they can best share their evidence base in ways that will increase funding.
- The Pledgers have access to something that few members of the smart giving movement have access to: Media. Pledgers should use their access to the media to speak regularly and passionately about philanthropy and particularly the idea of results focused philanthropy. To date, coverage of the Giving Pledge has mostly focused on the decision of the Pledgers to give away a lot of money. If the Giving Pledge as a group can reframe the “story” around the Pledge to one about smart, sophisticated giving they will make the project relevant to donors who simply don’t have the resources to give away huge amounts of money, but can still “give smart”.
- The smoking hot, third rail of the Giving Pledge has got to be the groups’ attitude towards impact investing and the role of for-profit corporations in creating social value. If even a small sub-group of Pledgers got involved in impact investing, they could single handily transform the market. Similarly, if a few of them used their vast corporate investments to influence the corporate social responsibility discussion, they could have a vast impact. Wal-Mart in recent years has gone from a punching bag of the environmental movement to becoming one of the most important positive influences on corporate environmental activities. The Giving Pledge members are in a unique position to catalyze the whole impact economy, not just the field of philanthropy.
What else might the Giving Pledge consider as they try to increase and enhance America’s cultural relationship with philanthropy?