How the Giving Pledge Pushes Smarter Philanthropy

Originally, Bill and Melinda Gates had hoped to do more than encourage giving by the wealthy. They envisioned the Giving Pledge as a way to promote effective philanthropy that would help solve the world’s big problems — a mission not unlike that of the foundation that bears their names and reflects their values.

The Gateses and Warren Buffett have poured billions of dollars of their own money — $45.5 billion, at last count — into programs that, for the most part, are aimed at helping the less fortunate. But they are reluctant to impose their values on others who sign the Giving Pledge.

As Melinda Gates once put it: “Philanthropy is very personal. To us, it doesn’t matter what people give, whether it’s to the culture or to climate, humanity or societal issues.”

The Giving Pledge staff organizes a day-and- a-half annual meeting for those who have signed. The Gates Foundation, which staffs the sessions, won’t say where they are held, or make the agendas public, even long after the fact.

Those who attend say donors share insights about how to develop a strategy, monitor and evaluate their programs, and listen to nonprofits they fund as well as the ultimate beneficiaries. “You can have a conversation around impact that doesn’t need to be prescriptive around particular causes,” says Rob Rosen, who leads the work on the Giving Pledge at the Gates Foundation.

Investor Bill Ackman calls the annual meeting of Giving Pledge members “informative and inspiring” and says a nice camaraderie has developed over time among the donors. “We walk away with a few insights that, I’m sure, have affected the way we think about philanthropy.” More important, he said, the Giving Pledge has subtly sent the message that, for the very wealthy, philanthropy is an obligation. “People look up to the examples of Buffett and Gates,” he said. Philanthropy is not bred into us, he added. “It’s something that has to be learned.”

“People look up to the examples of Buffett and Gates,” says the investor Bill Ackman, who has donated at least $335 million. Philanthropy is not bred into us, he says. “It’s something that has to be learned.”

Seeking Smart Opportunities

The foundation is a bit more forthcoming about a series of themed events organized by pledge signers. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (now called Arnold Ventures), for example, held a gathering in New York in 2017 to explore ways to overhaul the criminal-justice system, where people heard from leaders of nonprofits, law-enforcement officers, and policy makers, including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker. Some toured Riker’s Island, home of New York City’s biggest prison.

“There are some incredibly exciting opportunities in criminal justice now,” said Laura Arnold, who with her husband, John, took the Giving Pledge.

Other learning sessions sponsored by the Giving Pledge explored impact investing with Steve Case and Pierre Omidyar, patriotic philanthropy with David Rubenstein, the oceans with Ray Dalio, and education innovation with John and Ann Doerr and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.

It’s hard to know what difference they have made. Neither Arnold Ventures nor the Gates Foundation would say whether more money flowed to criminal-justice efforts in the wake of their meeting. No formal collaborations have emerged from the Giving Pledge. Some regard that as a missed opportunity.

“Sometimes what’s most useful is for a donor to follow the lead of others to increase the resources being directed at a problem,” says Phil Buchanan, chief executive of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. “After all, no giver can accomplish much alone.”

Participants in Giving Pledge events who were willing to talk said they had learned a lot from their fellow donors and from speakers at pledge events. Vinod Khosla became a supporter of the One Acre Fund, which helps farmers in Africa, after hearing its founder, Andrew Youn, speak at a pledge event. Ray Dalio, founder of the Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, has worked with Bloomberg on projects to protect oceans and invested alongside Gates in clean energy.

“While it is not a large focus of our programs,” Dalio said by email, “we are proud supporters of Bill’s efforts to eradicate polio and his clean-energy initiative.”

Setting Priorities

Still, more than half of those who took the pledge are over 65, and all indications are that they set their giving priorities long before signing. Ted Turner was devoted to the United Nations, the environment, and world peace. Tom Monaghan supported Catholic education. Gordon and Betty Moore funded conservation, science, and patient care. Younger donors are more likely to be influenced by the pledge, but it’s too soon to say how.

The Giving Pledge, as an organization, has been steadfastly agnostic about the question of which cause or causes deserve support. They talk a lot about means and not as much about ends.

Several years ago, Cari Tuna, who signed the pledge with her husband, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, said at a Giving Pledge gathering that instead of following their passions, she and her husband sought to maximize the amount of good they can do with their philanthropy. She encouraged other donors to do the same. Their Open Philanthropy Project does extensive research before selecting its focus areas, which include unorthodox causes such as farm-animal welfare and existential risks to humanity, as well as more traditional ones like criminal justice and global poverty.

“The youngest billionaire on the planet showed up and told people where to give,” said an insider. “That didn’t go over very well.”

Because no one tracks the giving of those who signed the pledge, it’s impossible to generalize about where their money is going or how much good it’s doing. Health, human services, education, and arts and culture are the biggest categories listed by Candid’s “Eye on the Giving Pledge,” but they are so broad as to be almost meaningless. (Health could mean a new wing for the local hospital, or the campaign to eradicate polio.)

Some Giving Pledge signers have funded activism to push for changes to curb climate change or overhaul the criminal-justice system; the list of those who have made big donations to elite universities appears to be longer.

Donations to Curb Inequality

While the Giving Pledge was an inventive idea, the Gateses and Buffett are not the first billionaires who set out to inspire others to follow. Ted Turner did it in the late 1990s, and Andrew Carnegie a century earlier. It was Carnegie, too, who first put forth the notion that giving away money is hard. “It is more difficult to give money away intelligently than to earn it in the first place,” he said, famously. But how difficult is it, really?

Conventional wisdom, even now, says it’s hard. That’s the premise behind the 2018 Bridgespan study commissioned by the Gates Foundation, which asserts that “finding the right funding opportunities can be challenging.” The study identifies barriers that stand in the way of wealthy donors who want to give effectively to drive social change and recommends pathways that will lead to greater giving to causes like human or social services, the environment, and international development.

Wealthy donors, including some who took the Giving Pledge, said they wanted to deal with growing inequality, increase opportunities for the less fortunate, or ensure the future of the American Dream, the researchers found. But their giving did not align with those intentions.

“Much of the ultrawealthy’s funding bypasses organizations and movements that address inequities,” the report says. “It’s as though there’s a four-lane highway for transporting charitable dollars from wealthy families to institutions: universities, hospitals, religious institutions, some conservation and arts causes, and so forth. However, when it comes to funding efforts to confront pressing social, environmental, and economic challenges, charitable giving quickly off-ramps onto slow-going back roads.”

Yet there’s no shortage of nonprofits that have been thoroughly vetted. The Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which is housed at the University of Pennsylvania, trains donors and staff to identify effective giving opportunities and publishes an annual guide that showcases effective charities in the United States and abroad. ImpactMatters estimates the cost-effectiveness of nonprofit programs, enabling donors to gauge the impact of their gifts. GiveWell does exhaustive research to identify the charities that do the most good.

GiveWell estimates that its eight top charities, most of which seek to improve global health, could collectively absorb more than $750 million in the next three years without taking into account their ability to expand.

One of those charities, GiveDirectly, simply makes no-strings-attached cash transfers to extremely poor people in Kenya and Uganda. It has gained support from some who signed the Giving Pledge, including Moskovitz and Tuna, Bill Ackman, Reid Hoffman, and Pierre Omidyar.

Paul Niehaus, a co-founder, says GiveDirectly could transfer $1 billion or more from the rich to the poor in the next five years. Wealthy donors could also support cash-transfer programs run by governments that give households money on the condition that parents invest in the health, nutrition, or education of their children.

“It does require letting go of control,” Niehaus says. “But I find it entirely plausible that somebody at some point will say that ‘I’ll be the billionaire in history who literally gives my money to the poor.’ ”

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