Since launching roughly five years ago, the Giving Pledge has attracted the support of more than a hundred billionaires around the world. The pledge, of course, is Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett’s effort to shame – there really isn’t a better word for it – the world’s richest into giving away half their wealth by the time they die.
Others have already pointed out that the pledge is remarkably light on specifics; it turns out all “giving away” half your wealth means is not giving it to your children. Many of the pledgers have committed their fortunes to their own foundations and existing charitable trusts (Richard Branson to Virgin Unite, T. Boone Pickens to the T. Boone Pickens Foundation, Ted Turner to the Turner Global Foundation…you get the idea). Moreover, the pledge is really just that—a pledge. Not a contract or even a mutual agreement but rather a “moral commitment to give,” the pledge understands itself to be commendable because it’s 100% voluntary. Sort of like “Scout’s Honor” for the richest of the rich. Finally, the pledge makes no real demands upon pledgers to give to anything in particular, just whatever makes them feel good. The causes are thus strikingly diverse yet all vaguely similar—global development, education, healthcare, crime prevention, medical research. Any of those typical crusades designed to make our world a better place. (Though one has to assume that Bill and Melinda wouldn’t be able to do much if the next pledger wanted to give his millions to, say, study the mating habits of endangered toads or promote literacy among Eskimos.) Thus its capaciousness undermines the pledge’s ultimate coherence.
And where do we stand now, five years after this effort launched? In fact, the number of new pledgers seems to have hit a ceiling: in early 2014 the Giving Pledge had attracted 120 signatories (that’s an average of thirty new pledgers per year); in early 2015, the total number rose to just 128. This paltry increase may be a reflection of waning media interest in the pledge and wariness of the idea by those being asked to join. In late 2013, for instance, Bill Gates asked hedge fund manager Robert W. Wilson to sign; Wilson responded with an angry series of emails pointing out the major “loophole” in the pledge allowing billionaires to commit their money to family-controlled foundations that are more often than not “bureaucracy-ridden sluggards.” Wilson told Gates he advises young people “to forget about charities and giving—concentrate on your family and getting rich.”
So not everyone is eager to join the Gateses’ exclusive club. Other criticism was less heated than Wilson’s and focused on the pledge’s lack of demonstrable benefit. Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff asked the key question back in 2012: “It has been two years; what are the ten or twenty major projects that [have] come out of it?" Now it has been five years and Benioff’s question still goes unanswered. Let’s not dwell on the irony of the Gateses—the reigning dons of metric-driven, data-obsessed philanthropy—overseeing what is basically a multibillion dollar honor system with no guaranteed outcomes. More and more billionaires are looking at the pledge and asking, “Where’s the beef?”
Showy, shallow, and ultimately of dubious impact, the Giving Pledge is a uniquely appropriate byproduct of today’s Big Philanthropy mindset.
Meanwhile, crown prince of American folk music Bob Dylan has been earning headlines recently with a perfectly Dylan-esque speech at a charity gala held in his honor. The speech is interesting and beautiful in its way, and you can read it here, but much of the news coverage has blown breezily past the fact that MusiCares, the group that singled Dylan out as its 2015 Person of the Year and threw the star-studded party, was recognizing his many years of philanthropic efforts. But wait, Bob Dylan: philanthropist? If that doesn’t quite seem right it may be because Dylan, though he has given generously to charities for many years, has hardly raised a finger to cultivate an image of himself as a philanthropist. On the contrary, there is reason to believe Dylan prefers anonymous charity; gossip tongues wagged in 2004 when Dylan made a low-key trip to an Irish children’s hospital which he had explicitly asked to be kept a secret (someone later leaked the story) and again in 2007 when it was discovered he had been singing in a California grade school (whose students thought he was just “Weird Guitar Guy”). Indeed, over the years Dylan has donated many millions to charities like Amnesty International and Feeding America (which received all the U.S. royalties for his chart-topping 2009 Christmas album), but has done so with a minimum of fanfare or self-promotion. It seems entirely plausible that Dylan would lend his considerable resources to any number of causes on the condition of anonymity; there are untold other philanthropists who similarly prefer to operate behind the scenes.
The Giving Pledge appears to be saying that philanthropists like Dylan are somehow less worthy than those who chose to announce their giving plans to the world. After all, the pledge contains zero enforcement measures—it only serves to publicize giving that would, presumably, be made anyways. But Dylan reminds us – in his characteristically cool way – that there is a different style of philanthropy. A quieter, less eager style.