“Why isn’t it better to be the biggest giver rather than the biggest hog?” That was the challenge laid down in 1996 by the godfather of philanthrocapitalism, Ted Turner, to two tight-fisted billionaires – Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Fourteen years on and Gates and Buffett are the world’s biggest givers who have laid down their own challenge to their fellow billionaires to give away at least half of their fortunes.
Gates and Buffett deny that Turner’s naming and shaming was the inspiration for their extreme generosity, which they say had been long-planned. Gates, in particular, has sold philanthropy to his peers on the basis that it is enormous fun. The Giving Pledge update that they released earlier today is testimony, however, to the power of peer pressure. With their encouragement, 40 super-rich Americans have signed the pledge – that’s 10% of the country’s 400 billionaires by Sean Stannard-Stockton’s calculations – and more are expected to follow at home and abroad. The pledge is already proving a big step forward for the philanthrocapitalism movement.
This new philanthropy A-list includes plenty of familiar names – like Michael Bloomberg and Eli and Edythe Broad who are veteran givers – but, at least one surprise: Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle and one-time rival to Gates for title of the world’s richest man. His name is unexpected, in part because he has rather blown hot and cold over philanthropy in his public statements over the years but also because there is no love lost between he and Gates. Ellison’s pledge admits that it was Buffett’s arm-twisting that got him to sign up on the grounds that it might influence others to give, with a rueful comment “I hope he’s right”.
At the start of the year we predicted that another IT magnate, Steve Jobs, would be the one to go big on giving in 2010. Ellison surprised us all by getting in first but if the Giving Pledge can keep up this momentum Jobs may be adding his name soon, along with the other 359 American billionaires. Let’s hope.