Lazy_Bear/shutterstock
Lazy_Bear/shutterstock

A lot can change in a decade. Back in 2009, as the world’s economy reeled from crash and recession, a coterie of billionaires gathered over dinner in New York City to talk philanthropy. Oprah was there, and so was New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg. The late David Rockefeller was in attendance, and so were Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the richest people in the world at the time.

The Giving Pledge went live the following year to great fanfare. A detailed rundown in Fortune by Carol Loomis characterized it as the “biggest fundraising drive in history,” with “the potential to dramatically change the philanthropic behavior of Americans, inducing them to step up the amounts they give.” If Inside Philanthropy had been around back then, we might have harbored high hopes, too.

There’s little to be excited about now. For one thing, the reputations of the Giving Pledge’s founders have taken a shellacking—Gates and Buffett are no longer the philanthropic demigods they were back in 2010. We’ve seen Bill and Melinda divorce amid speculation over Bill’s misdeeds, while a nonagenarian Buffett backs away from the foundation he helped grow to its current gargantuan size, leaving it in a state of deep uncertainty as plans are hatched for new governance.

Then there’s the fact that the knives are out for billionaires in a way that just wasn’t true a decade ago. The sentiment that there’s no such thing as a “good billionaire” has gained traction, and not just among diehard lefties. But good or not, the nation’s billionaires just keep getting richer. Meanwhile, the Giving Pledge meanders on, occasionally gaining a signatory or two as a new cohort of harder-hitting reform proposals crowds its way in.

Recent verdicts on the Giving Pledge have been downbeat. As the pledge reached its one-decade mark, Marc Gunther and Drew Lindsay wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that it “neither obligates nor encourages pledgers to give away their money during their lifetime,” and that its bid to galvanize donors to give away a lot more of their wealth while alive had essentially failed. Chuck Collins and Helen Flannery went on to lambast the pledge in their 2020 report on the problematic trend toward top-heavy philanthropy, which they appropriately titled “Gilded Giving.”

In our own coverage, we’ve often called out the super-rich for their stinginess. When Forbes released its list of the 400 richest Americans a year ago, I wrote that “unless the Forbes 400 start giving vastly more money away, they won’t be able to deliver on their Giving Pledges and other grand designs to dispose of their wealth while they’re alive.” Predictably, not much has changed.

It turns out that a voluntary pledge just isn’t enough to motivate the biggest donors to revolutionize their philanthropy. Not only that, some of the most prolific philanthropists seem unable to keep up with their ever-expanding hoards. Even the pledge’s two founders are far richer than they were in 2010. Buffett is also 91 years old, and doesn’t have much time left to match Chuck Feeney’s success in giving while living.

Of course, we all dutifully take note when a billionaire signs the Giving Pledge, no doubt stroking the pledger’s already inflated ego. Maybe that’s all the pledge is now—a vanity item, another mark of prestige for a set of super-citizens who don’t need it. To be fair to the Giving Pledge, there is always some value in rhetoric that promises a change of norms. But unless the norms actually change at some point, rhetoric is all it is.

It’s clear from the numbers that the pledge hasn’t delivered on its original intention to turbocharge billionaire giving. But setting that aside for a moment, is there anything qualitative we can glean from it to better understand the billionaire donor dynamic?

That question has been the subject of some pretty interesting research by Hans Peter Schmitz, George E. Mitchell and Elena M. McCollim. Rather than looking at pledgers’ actual giving, the researchers took a deep dive into the donors’ Giving Pledge letters. And rather than attempt to discern motivations—which the letters may or may not truly reflect—they looked at how the letters establish “a collective discourse among these philanthropists directed at the public as well as at fellow billionaires.” Though the pledge may have failed in its original purpose, it’s still “a significant site of defining the nature and purpose of billionaire philanthropy,” the researchers write.

I’d encourage interested readers to take a look at the lengthier discussion in HistPhil, and at the relevant papers themselves (here and here). In short, the researchers found that a predominant 87% of Giving Pledge letters contained “social-normative” rationales for giving, which express gratitude and a desire to give back, and “emphasize the connection of the pledger to his or her broader community” along with values derived from the pledger’s upbringing.

A much smaller 13% of letters contained a “personal-consequentialist” rationale, encompassing “concerns about a large inheritance harming offspring, experiences of personal fulfillment and gratification as a result of giving, and an acknowledgment of having excess wealth with no better use.”

The researchers go on to say that this disparity indicates a prevalent discourse of billionaire giving in which philanthropy is the “right thing to do,” outweighing a minority view that philanthropy is “the best thing” for a billionaire to do.

Most billionaire donors, in other words, prefer to frame their giving as just recompense for benefits received, a kind of social contract in which the billionaire, as just another citizen, smiles back at the society that smiled on them. This isn’t too surprising. Billionaires are human, after all, and most no doubt see themselves as not all that different from other people.

But the super-rich are different. Not in terms of ingenuity, hard work and the like (that’s a different debate) but by the simple fact that they command outlandish wealth, sometimes functionally limitless wealth. There’s nothing “social-normative” about Elon Musk casually tweeting “count me in for $50m” for a fundraising drive coinciding with SpaceX’s recent space tourism launch. (For Musk, giving away $50 million is like someone with $200,000 giving away 50 bucks.) Nor is there anything normative about how apex donor MacKenzie Scott is single-handedly remaking entire sections of the nonprofit universe, even as her fortune fails to diminish in any meaningful way.

The fortunes of the richest have achieved escape velocity. While the Giving Pledge may have been conceived as a way to return to Earth, in 2021, it’s clear that they have left orbit. Only versions of the personal-consequentialist rationale, with their acknowledgment that being super-rich differentiates and distances the wealth holder from other people, speak to the reality of a society containing individuals with such extreme wealth.

The fact that the majority of pledgers appear not to see it that way is a sign that beyond just failing to encourage greater giving, the Giving Pledge may cement the idea that the super-rich are just another set of citizens who happen to have a lot of money, whose current level of philanthropic giving adequately reflects what society has given them. If that’s the case, then yes, the pledge is obsolete.

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