Super-sized philanthropy -

Super-sized philanthropy

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett plan to give away half of their fortunes


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How could giving away at least $115 billion to charity win anything but universal, flattering praise, especially in a post-recession age where many charities are in desperate need? Here’s how.

America’s two richest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, plan to give away half of their fortunes (worth a combined US$90 billion), and last week announced they’ve convinced 38 other billionaires to do the same by signing what they’re calling the “Giving Pledge.” The list includes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, media mogul Ted Turner, film director George Lucas and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison.

Some critics, however, have questioned how effective donations are coming from the ultra-rich. Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, argues in an article for the Chronicle of Philanthropy that the Gates-Buffett effort could “intensify the inequities that exist both in the nonprofit world and in the rest of society.” The rich “give their biggest donations almost exclusively to universities and colleges, hospitals and medical centres, and arts institutions,” but rarely make large donations to “social service groups, grassroots organizations, or nonprofit groups that focus on the poor or minorities.” Many of those charities also aren’t equipped to handle big donations, note experts.

But it’s hard to fault the effort, which Gates and Buffett kicked off at a secretive dinner for billionaires last year. They personally made calls to almost 80 people from the Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans list to convince them to pledge. The combined $230 billion net worth of the 40 billionaires signed on to the pledge also sets a important example at a time when donation levels in both the U.S. and Canada have experienced sharp declines.

Buffett, fortunately, doesn’t appear to be listening to the critics. He has promised to continue trying to sign up his fellow billionaires, including those outside of the U.S. That could include a few more of Canada’s 55 billionaires (the lone Canadian on the list is Montreal-born Jeff Skoll). “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future,” says Buffett. “We’ll keep on working.”


Super-sized philanthropy

  1. The criticism above is interesting considering the enormous work that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done to help poor people – for example, partnering with Rotary International to work to eradicate polio throughout the world. Many of the Gates Foundation initiatives are exactly in the areas criticized by Eisenberg.

  2. In the last week or so I came across an analysis that sought to estimate the benefit to humanity's standard of living from the profit-making ventures of these billionaires' successful businesses (efficient development and increasing affordability of products and services that people actually wanted for the value it added to their own lives: cell-phones, birth-control pill, computer software, etc.). Such activity fared far better compared to the standard-of-living results achieved by their charitable activities (burdened as they were by bureaucracy, the induction states of dependent helplessness, devastating the market for local farmers by dumping "free" food among the population, etc.).

    I can't help but think that mosquito nets and polio vaccines and clean water from deep wells are good things. But that analysis gave me pause. If I re-discover the link, I will bring it here.