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Buffett to Ultra-rich: Meet Me Halfway

By Susan Carey Dempsey on June 18, 2010One Comment
Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...
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This week’s blockbuster $600 billion philanthropic challenge from Warren Buffett has made headlines, but it’s a story that’s been building behind the scenes for several years. As reported in Fortune this week by Carol Loomis, Buffett has worked closely with Bill and Melinda Gates to transform philanthropy by gathering the big guns – he calls them “Great Givers” – and challenging, daring, motivating, embarrassing individuals of wealth to make powerful commitments to giving it away.  To drive it forward, a website called The Giving Pledge has been established, where Warren Buffett has posted a letter affirming his pledge to give 99% of his fortune away in his lifetime or upon his death.

The Fortune article focuses mainly on an intriguing dinner gathering of these movers and shakers that took place last year in New York. Hosted by David Rockefeller, it included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner and about a dozen more. In subsequent meetings and dinners, the group sought ways to provide a catalyst for action among their peers who had not yet made significant commitments to philanthropy. Eventually, they decided the most effective approach was to ask for 50% of the fortunes of “Great Givers” to be pledged. To accomplish that, it helped that most of these folks know what makes the ultra-rich tick, the author explained:

Buffett knows that everyone rich has thought about what to do with his or her money: “They may not have reached a decision about that, but they have for sure thought about it. The pledge that we’re asking them to make will put them to thinking about the whole issue again.” He warns, most of all, against the rich delaying the decision of what to do with their money: “If they wait until they’re making a final will in their nineties, the chance of their brainpower and willpower being better than they are today is nil.”

Buffett may be the single philanthropist who has given the greatest thought to how to achieve impact with his philanthropy, starting with his decision, considered highly unusual at the time, to channel his giving through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As reported in onPhilanthropy at the time, one of the reasons he chose them to facilitate his giving was their willingness to take risks and to make mistakes that were necessary in pursuing various avenues in search of breakthroughs in such challenging areas as malaria and AIDS research. In discussing their present efforts to coax more out of reluctant billionaires, Melinda Gates is sympathetic to the possible causes of their hesitation:

There are so many reasons that rich people don’t give, she says: They don’t want to plan for their death; they worry that they’ll need to hire someone to help with the work; they just don’t want to take the time to think about it all. So the initial goal of the pledge campaign, she thinks, must be simply to cut through that and get them moving in the direction of giving. And eventually? “Three to five years down the road, we need to have a significant number of billionaires signed up. That would be success.”

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