Gates, Buffett Goad Peers to Give Billions to Charity
ROBERT A. GUTH and SHELLY BANJO - The Wall Street Journal
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates called Wednesday on their billionaire peers to give away half of their wealth.
The pronouncement by Messrs. Buffett and Gates stems from a series of dinners the two men held over the past year to discuss the effects of the recession on philanthropy with some of the nation's richest people, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, investor Ronald O. Perelman and David Rockefeller, his family's patriarch.
The result of the dinners is an invitation, called the Giving Pledge, which asks the nation's billionaires to publicly commit to give at least half of their wealth to philanthropic and charitable groups within their lifetimes or after their deaths.
The effort casts a spotlight on a highly private decision, and inserts Messrs. Buffett and Gates into the process. While several attendees of the dinners have made the pledge, many of the nation's wealthiest already had decided to disburse the bulk of their wealth to charitable causes.
The goal is to help create an expectation in society that the rich should give away their wealth and to create a peer group of wealthy people that can offer advice on philanthropy, said Melinda Gates, Mr. Gates's wife and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"It's really to help people to get started on their own in whatever it is they want to do," she said. "One of the most important things about philanthropy is that people do what they are passionate about. They won't do it otherwise."
The effort comes during the second year in a row in which philanthropy experienced its deepest decline ever recorded by the Giving USA Foundation, which has tracked annual giving since 1956. Donations fell 3.6% to $303.75 billion last year, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to Giving USA. In 2008, they were down 2%.
This week, Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com Inc., said he planned to give $100 million to a children's hospital being built by the University of California, San Francisco, part of the software entrepreneur's plan to donate the majority of his wealth in his lifetime.
"This is in many ways like a religion-you either believe or you don't," said Mr. Benioff, who hasn't received the Buffett-Gates invitation. "People are not easily swayed in one direction or the other."
Mr. Rockefeller, George Soros and Gerry Lenfest are among those who already had decided to give away half or more than half their wealth. Mr. Rockefeller has given or pledged to give at his death more than $1 billion to charitable causes, including more than $100 million gifts to Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller University, Harvard University and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Mr. Lenfest, who in 2000 sold his communications company to Comcast for more than $6 billion and started a foundation, has already given away more than 70% of his wealth, said Joy Tartar, his foundation's CFO.
"Pledging to give away 50% of his wealth is like closing the barn door after the horse has gone out," Ms. Tartar said.
Still, when he received a phone call from Mr. Buffett to get involved he said he gladly obliged and planned to sign the pledge.
Ms. Gates said she, her husband and Mr. Buffett are now calling other billionaires to sign the pledge, which asks them to commit to an additional $600 billion-a benchmark calculated by dividing the amount of wealth represented in Forbes Magazine's billionaires list in half, said Melissa Berman, president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, an adviser to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Mr. Perelman, the billionaire chairman and CEO of McAndrews & Forbes who spends more than $60 million a year on philanthropy, said he supported the idea of a pledge but declined to say whether he would sign it. "I embrace the spirit of the pledge," Mr. Perelman said.
In 2009, Mr. Bloomberg said he gave $254 million to nearly 1,400 nonprofit organizations.
"I am a big believer in giving it all away and have always said that the best financial planning ends with bouncing the check to the undertaker," the mayor said.