Not a day has gone by in the past few weeks that I haven’t seen something written about the Gates/Buffett Giving Pledge on a philanthropy blog. But with each passing day the commentary surrounding the project seems to be getting more and more critical. Who could have anticipated that the mega-rich pledging their fortunes to philanthropy could have become such a controversial topic?
On the surface, the project appears seamless – a plan that promises to change the face of philanthropy in the coming decades. No one can argue with the fact that a handful of mega-gifts can significantly impact overall giving. Giving USA 2010 showed that individual giving held steady in 2009, but only as a result of five gifts from high-net-worth donors totaling nearly $1.6 billion. Without those gifts, overall giving by individuals in 2009 would have declined by 1.1 percent. The problem with the Giving Pledge’s promise to change philanthropy, however, is that much of the money will not be transferred for years, and even then may be dispersed at a very slow rate.
Many of the families that have signed on so far have pledged to transfer their wealth after their death. Ron Rosenbaum of Slate magazine criticizes this practice. “Show us the money if you want the credit,” he writes. “And show it to us now, before you die, not in some distant future where a lot of poor and diseased people will themselves have died for lack of timely aid.” While the pledging parties certainly have the option to transfer their wealth during their lifetime, it’s likely that in those cases the money will be funneled into charitable family foundations – and many of those foundations are only required to make grants totaling five percent of their assets each year. The argument is that it could take decades before the money finally trickles out to the organizations that need it now.
While I certainly agree with the above criticisms, the problem I see with the pledge is the spotlight it shines on the rare mega-gift, and the attention that it takes away from the everyday donor. While the donations made by the über-wealthy are certainly generous, in many cases they are not stretch gifts. Personally, I am far more moved by middle class families that have remained committed to supporting the organizations in their communities even in the face of their own pay-cuts and job losses.
Don’t get me wrong – overall, I think the Giving Pledge is a great project. But it would be sad to see organizations become fixated on claiming their piece of the mega-gift pie when there are so many mid-level donors that have continued to give, even when it hasn’t been easy.
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