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The Giving Pledge, the campaign to change billionaire philanthropy, explained

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett set out to get the rich to give more. Here’s what happened.

Bill Gates seated next to Warren Buffett onstage at a conference.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffett speak at a Columbia Business School event in 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Ten years ago — in May 2009 — billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffett held a private dinner meeting with fellow billionaires in New York City. Oprah reportedly attended, as did David Rockefeller and Michael Bloomberg.

A year later, they revealed what the meeting had been about: Gates and Buffett had been consulting their fellow ultra-rich on philanthropy, and how to get them to do more of it.

In 2010, the two of them launched a campaign that they hoped would change philanthropy: the Giving Pledge. The idea was to persuade their fellow billionaires to pledge at least 50 percent of their wealth to charity. It was greeted with enthusiasm. “Society cannot help but be a beneficiary here, by virtue of at least some dollars and perhaps many,” concluded a thoroughly reported piece in Fortune on the secret meetings that produced the Giving Pledge.

That claim seems to have been borne out — as far as it goes. Ten years later, we are in a position to evaluate some of the effects of the Giving Pledge. Hundreds of billionaires have signed on, with Bloomberg and other big names like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Mackenzie Bezos among them. More than $500 billion have been pledged, and money is already being donated to a range of causes.

But somehow, it all feels a little disappointing. Despite their commitment to give at least half of their fortunes away, Gates and Buffett are both richer than when they started. Meanwhile, many other prominent billionaires haven’t signed on to the pledge. There are now 607 billionaires in the US, up from 404 in 2010, and more than 2,000 worldwide — and of that 2,000, only 204 have signed on to the pledge.

Moreover, the past 10 years have transformed how many think about billionaire philanthropy. A tide of public skepticism is rising to challenge the charity of the billionaire class, from whether it’s getting results to whether it’s wrong that such philanthropyand such a class — exist at all. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine something like the pledge being announced today.

A decade after that first billionaires’ meeting, the Giving Pledge can rightly be judged both a step in the right direction and a disappointment — an attempt to revolutionize philanthropy that fell short of the goal, but that nonetheless offers a glimpse of what might still be possible.

A modest ask, with modest effects

In some ways, the Giving Pledge was not a very big ask. It did not involve a timetable for giving, or impose any requirements on how the money could be given. It wasn’t legally binding. And it was aimed at people who couldn’t possibly miss the money.

But it nonetheless would have represented a dramatic change in the behavior of the world’s richest people. Gates and Buffett, who had pledged their fortunes to work on global health and education, were deeply unusual. Most billionaires give relatively little. Estimating from IRS records, the 400 highest tax-paying Americans donated between 8 percent and 11 percent of their income in 2010, and many estimates of total lifetime giving land in the same ballpark.

Gates and Buffett wanted to increase that to 50 percent. The intent, the Giving Pledge site states, was to “collectively set a new standard of generosity among the ultra-wealthy.” They may have wanted to increase it even further — Buffett has pledged 99 percent of his wealth, and in early conversations a more ambitious understanding of the aim of billionaire philanthropy was floated: “that the rich should sit down, decide how much money they and their progeny need, and figure out what to do with the rest of it.”

Moreover, in the early going at least, there was some discussion of urging donors to not just give more but to give wisely. “Bill and Melinda Gates,” Marc Gunther reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “contemplated launching the Giving Pledge with four pillars: Give big. Give smart. Give now. Give to inequities.”

But Buffett pushed back, according to Gunther. He didn’t want the pledge to dictate where, how, or when to give. “The thinking — ironically in retrospect — was create a low bar to make the tent as big as possible,” Gunther told me. “It turned out to be a miscalculation, because I don’t think that many people came into the tent.”

The less-demanding form the pledge takes today may have been a strategic choice made in order to get more billionaires on board with the pledge. But the compromises that Buffett and Gates had hoped would make the pledge more appealing significantly weakened its potential to be a force for good.

Here’s what I mean: Much of what makes Gates a remarkable philanthropist is not just how much he’s spent, but how unusually well he’s spent it. The Gates Foundation has certainly funded many projects that have been disappointments (its work on education, for one, has been ineffective). But its global health work has made vaccines more widely available and saved lots of lives, and the scientific research it funds has produced impressive and important results.

Gates is unique, though. Not all billionaires have the same priorities. Many fund new performing arts centers at Ivy League colleges with endowments of more than $10 billion, or wings named after them at art museums.

The Giving Pledge doesn’t concern itself with those decisions. If you want to give to your Ivy League alma mater, great; if you want to give to save people from malaria, great. All the pledge asks is that the billionaire donate a chunk of their fortune; it doesn’t nudge them on where they should donate, nor does it nudge them to donate now. That’s a big missed opportunity to really push philanthropy in a direction that leads to better, more effective giving.

There’s another problem we don’t think about as much but is quite real: Giving away a lot of money, if you want to do it effectively, is actually not that easy. Even though they’ve continued to donate, Gates and Buffett are wealthier than they were in 2010 — with Gates’s fortune recently topping $100 billion.

It’s not necessarily because Gates is insincere. Most of the billionaires who’ve taken the Giving Pledge are giving away their money quite slowly. That’s at least in part because giving away billions of dollars while ensuring the money is well-spent is a hard task. There are promising giving opportunities that can absorb billions in additional funding, many of them identified since 2010. But billionaires largely haven’t overcome their instinctive wariness of spending fast on things they haven’t vetted — and so even the best-intentioned among them are spending down their fortunes relatively slowly.

The pledge could have had more of an effect if there had been some sophisticated infrastructure for identifying promising giving opportunities that could absorb billions of dollars in funding, and transparently making the case for those giving opportunities to potential funders.

There has been a lot of movement in that direction in the past 10 years in the philanthropic sector. Charity evaluator GiveWell, which identifies high-impact opportunities in global development that could benefit from tens or hundreds of millions of new funding, was just starting out in 2010, when the pledge was launched. Now it’s a larger, more established organization with more and higher-quality recommendations.

It spun off a sister organization, the Open Philanthropy Project, that advises billionaire Giving Pledge signatories Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna on how to effectively give away billions towards emerging technologies, basic research, risks to humanity, and other high-impact opportunities outside global development.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have been building a sizable team at the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, which they hope will allow them to find and fund such opportunities.

But while these are steps in the right direction, they’re small ones; it’s still hard for a billionaire to direct philanthropy effectively.

In the past 10 years, we’ve decided we kinda hate billionaires

But those aren’t the only things that feel disappointing about the Giving Pledge. To a lot of people, the pledge feels like a product of a different era — one with a lot less suspicion of billionaires and the power that philanthropy enables them to wield.

When Mark Zuckerberg signed on in 2010, he was a highly regarded CEO, and occasionally mentioned as an eventual candidate for president; now, Facebook is the least-trusted tech company and Zuckerberg is unpopular as well. Major candidates for president have put forward aggressive proposals to cut down on America’s billionaires.

Billionaires who donate money are just “bribing society at large,” Anand Giridharadas has said, comparing Zuckerberg’s school reforms to the adventurism of Christopher Columbus. Historian Rutger Bregman was catapulted to instant celebrity when he went off script at Davos to scold his ultra-rich audience to “stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes.”

Thanks to advocates like those, there’s a question that is salient today that was less salient back in 2010. If Gates and Buffett had dedicated their resources to, say, pushing for a better tax code and economic politics — as opposed to encouraging more philanthropy — would that have done more for the world? It seems like it certainly might have. (Gates has said he should have paid more in taxes, and other prominent billionaire philanthropists have expressed similar sentiments.)

Now, I think there are legitimate critiques of philanthropy today, and there are answers to those critiques. For instance, there are important moral priorities that the US government is not pursuing and will not pursue, from advocacy for civil liberties to reproductive health care to emerging technologies. Philanthropy can help fill that void.

Gates and Buffett themselves stand as an interesting challenge to, at least, the stronger versions of that critique. Especially through GAVI, the Gates Foundation’s vaccination program, and through their work against malaria and other killer diseases in poor countries, Gates’ and Buffett’s giving has helped save millions of lives, and any conversation about philanthropy ought to acknowledge as much.

But the Giving Pledge is not really among the answers to those critiques. It encourages billionaires to give more, without taking any kind of stance on whether their giving does real good. The pledge and the community around it valorizes billionaire giving — likely a smart strategic decision for getting billionaires to sign up, but one that necessarily elides some important questions that the rest of us care a lot about.

In trying to be a broad tent — appealing to almost all billionaires, independent of worldview — it ends up with nothing to say about questions that are urgent and high-stakes. And it doesn’t even really attract the desired broad tent, either, with many prominent billionaires still declining to sign and new alternatives now competing for their attention.

In some ways, a stricter pledge — one that commits pledgers to report details of their giving, and to give to areas they believe to be neglected, high-impact, and not better addressed through policy — might have been a better strategic call. More demanding, less inclusive, but more meaningful, a stricter pledge could have been a stronger signal that a signatory was doing something genuinely commendable and important. That might have directed more money toward urgent global priorities, even if it directed less money overall.

As it stands, having signed the pledge doesn’t mean someone will do any good, or even that they’re definitely trying.

Even for those of us who think philanthropy plays an important role in addressing the challenges ahead of us, that’s a disappointing state of affairs.

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