Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Gates-Buffett Billionaire Challenge

So Bill and Melinda Gates, along with Warren Buffett, are going to challenge America’s billionaires to contribute half of their net worth to charity, either in their lifetimes or in a bequest.

Two things come to mind. First, congratulations to the Gates’ and Mr. Buffett for such an ambitious plan, which they call The Giving Pledge. If they pull this off, or are even a quarter successful, the face of philanthropy will change dramatically. After all, as the article above notes, we’re talking, at a minimum, $600 billion if everyone on the Forbes 400 Richest List participates. Given that estimates of annual U.S. giving are currently at the $300 billion range, we’re talking about a seismic shift in giving. And if it’s successful, we might as well give Bill the unofficial title of Best Philanthropist Ever, because he’ll have reached charitable heights NO ONE has ever dreamed of, and not just in total giving either.

Two, this challenge underscores (and validates, though I’m not sure the profession really needs anymore validation) the principles we use every day in fundraising. Challenging donors to give more than they had ever imagined before. Using giving clubs to encourage donations—and this challenge may represent the most exclusive giving club ever—because we know that sometime peer pressure works, and that donors may give more or at an equal level if they know what a friend or colleague has given. And finally, using donors and volunteers to raise funds so “the ask” comes from a trusted colleague as opposed to just another solicitation from the organization.

Part of me wants to say “it’s about time,” but really, we haven’t had the right factors to make such a challenge possible until now: immense amounts of wealth that can truly make an impact, huge needs amplified by the global recession, charismatic leaders (the Gates) and a respected convert, so to speak (Mr. Buffett), not to mention the growth of philanthropy to be able to adequately handle these huge amounts of money and technology to make the campaign work. It seems more like the next step in the logical evolution of philanthropy than a radical step.
Of course, the big question is, will it be successful? Ultimately, I think it will be, though perhaps not as quickly as we might hope. I wonder if having the challenge in public (where we know what the level of giving is and who is being asked) changes the dynamics of “the ask.” Will there be resentment by some potential donors knowing that people might be able to check on whether they’ve given or not?

But I’m buoyed by the reports I’m hearing about the one-on-one conversations that are taking place. Because as we know, it’s often in these kinds of personal discussions where the light bulb suddenly turns on, and the donor identifies what he or she truly wants to do and realizes that the gift is possible. If the Gates’, Mr. Buffett and others can continue to have close, personal conversations with these donors, an extraordinary amount of giving is possible over the next few years and well into the future.