Brother, can you spare a billion?

Oh, to be a fly on the wall!  In the summer of 2009, a meeting of some of the world’s wealthiest individuals was called together by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.  The purpose of the invitation? To discuss the idea of giving and to talk about how this group of highly wealthy and influential individuals might be able to take philanthropic giving to a new level.   

What grew out of the meetings was the creation of The Giving Pledge – a website where some of the wealthiest individuals in the world are making pledges to donate the majority of their wealth to charity, with the bar being initially set at 50%, either during their lifetime or upon their death. For reference, Fortune magazine estimates the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 list to be a whopping $1.2 trillion!

Included among those who have already made the pledge are the likes of Ted Turner, George Lucas (who knew Ewoks were worth so much?), David Rockefeller, Bill & Melinda Gates, Paul Allen and Warren Buffett.  The pledge letters themselves are a fascinating read.  In particular, the letter from Warren Buffett stood out for me.  In his donation pledge, Warren Buffett states the following:

First, my pledge: More than 99% of my wealth will go to philanthropy during my lifetime or at death. Measured by dollars, this commitment is large. In a comparative sense, though, many individuals give more to others every day.

Millions of people who regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations thereby relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. The dollars these people drop into a collection plate or give to United Way mean forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures. In contrast, my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99% pledge.

Moreover, this pledge does not leave me contributing the most precious asset, which is time. Many people, including -- I'm proud to say -- my three children, give extensively of their own time and talents to help others. Gifts of this kind often prove far more valuable than money. A struggling child, befriended and nurtured by a caring mentor, receives a gift whose value far exceeds what can be bestowed by a check.

Buffett goes on to provide his thoughts on his accumulation of wealth:

My wealth has come from a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest... I've worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate's distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.

I highly encourage you to take a look at the website and spend some time reading through some of the pledge letters.  The letters provide a great deal of insight into the rationale that some of the donors have given for signing on as well as the causes that each of them support.

While it might be easy to be cynical about a group of billionaires donating their money to charity, I think this type of leadership deserves to be applauded.  My hope is that through the leadership of the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, philanthropic giving as we know it may truly be transformed.