I pledge: Making the most by giving it away

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Thanks to a philanthropic campaign led by two of the world's most financially blessed — Warren Buffet and Bill Gates — dozens of billionaires pledged recently to give at least half their fortunes to charity. According to estimates by Forbes magazine, that basically means at least $150 billion could potentially be committed to a range of causes.

They did what?!

The Giving Pledge campaign, launched initially in June, saw Buffett as well as Gates and his wife Melinda, approach close to 20% of the richest folk in the United States hoping to convince them to let a large chunk of their fortunes go. The idea was they would donate — whether during their lifetime or after their death — to philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice.

Every signatory to the campaign releases a public statement and produces a letter explaining what inspired their decision. Later, at an annual event, the pledge bearers will come together to share ideas and learn from each other. But, keep in mind, the pledge carries no legal ramifications; it's a moral commitment to give, plain and simple. And it does not, in any way, involve pooling money or supporting any particular organization.

The response

Buffet was elated the morning the pledge was announced. "We've really just started, but already we've had a terrific response," he said. "We're delighted that so many have decided to not only take this pledge but also to commit to sums far greater than the 50% minimum level." Asked about whether he thinks the campaign will cross geographical lines, Buffet had this to say at a press conference, "We...hope that this catches fire in some other countries," adding, "If they want to take what we think is a good idea and run with it, we will be cheering."

Totaling 40 signatories at the time this article was written, some who came onboard include New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, filmmaker George Lucas, media mogul Ted Turner, and Canadian native Jeff Skoll. As to why he was quick to join the campaign, Skoll's motivations were clear: "The world is a vast and complicated place and it needs each of us doing all we can to ensure a brighter tomorrow for future generations."

Craig Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children and its enterprising arm, Me to We, has been a fortunate recipient of Skoll's support in the past. He was elated to hear the news, calling it an initiative whose time has come. "In an age of great wealth and stunning disparity, I am heartened to see so many notable individuals offering to donate such a generous gift," he says. And as far as his benefactor's pledge, he wasn't surprised. "It is truly in keeping with Jeff Skoll's generous nature to be a part of such an incredible initiative."

Playing match-up

While the Giving Pledge is specifically focused on billionaires, the idea takes its inspiration from efforts that encourage donors of all financial means and backgrounds. President of AFP Greater Toronto Chapter and a partner at KCI, a fundraising consultancy, Karen Wilson sees the Pledge as part of a trend that's been in place a long time. "People get really excited to be able to match a gift," she explains "because it's like the double or triple bang for your buck."

George Stanois of The Goldie Company agrees. "This is not a new phenomenon," he says, explaining how people like and Carnegie were part of the trend's early adopters, having given away huge sums of their fortunes. Of course, the scale may be bigger today but the greater number of billionaires — many more today than 50 years ago — may have something to do with that. "We always use major donors to challenge other donors," he adds, saying it's a common fundraising approach — and a successful one at that. "It's nothing new under the sun, there's no use reinventing the wheel."

The trend in Ontario can even be traced back to 1996, says Wilson, the year when the Ontario government initiated a program called the Ontario Student Opportunity Trust Fund, whereby it would match any money individuals put in to support scholarships. Thanks to the matching initiative, universities did phenomenally well, she adds. The trend comes down to that famous phrase: rising tides raise all ships, Wilson offers. "That's been our experience over and over again in the philanthropic sector. "

On the other hand….

There are those who wonder about the potential downsides of the pledge, however. Some ponder, for example, if it wasn't for the publicity, would there be as much giving? Where have anonymous donations gone? Is it ever likely to make a comeback in this day of public sharing and caring á la Facebook Causes and the like? Likewise, they question whether the matching trend indicates guilt-induction to be the strongest motivator for giving. And, if so, whether that's a somber sign of the times. Absolutely not, says Wilson. Cynicism has no place in her books apparently. "In all surveys on fundraising, the number one reason people give is that it feels good to give," she says emphatically. "What's important to them is the impact they're going to have and that they're doing good; that's what motivates."

And then there's the question about everyday donors. Will they feel absolved of their duty thinking their modest donations are irrelevant in light of the initiatives by the wealth, as Carol Goar posits in the Toronto Star? Wilson is not concerned. "I think we're seeing more people who are still giving," she says. "The percentage of tax filers are going down but the actual number of Canadian citizens giving is going up." In fact according to the most recent Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (CSGVP), close to 23 million Canadians — 84% of the population aged 15 and over — made a financial donation to a charitable or other nonprofit organization in the 12-month period that was covered by the 2007 stats. It states, "While the donation rate is virtually the same as that reported in 2004 (85%), the number of donors increased by approximately 2.9%, in part due to a 3.7% increase in the population of Canadians aged 15 and older."

Inspirational for all

No matter how you look at it the billionaire pledge speaks volumes. "I think it's great billionaires are saying charities are important," says Wilson. They want to do something to make the world better plain and simple. And for that, she adds, "I'm a huge supporter."

The message goes beyond the wealthy, of course. "The generosity of those who commit to the Giving Pledge serves as an example to everyone that we can all contribute to helping those in need," offers Kielburger. "It is not just celebrities or the wealthy who can make a difference — anyone can make a contribution. If we all share our abundance of gifts, it will lead to significant change."

And there is certainly plenty of change to go around, whether the pledge is for now or after their deaths, making these type of initiatives laudatory achievements. "There are often social and environmental challenges that need to be addressed in both our lifetime and future generations," adds Kielburger, using the devastating earthquake in Haiti as an example of the continuous need to give for long-term development. "There are so many issues of social injustice around the world today that initiatives like this one will go a long way to creating positive global social change."

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is also president of Elle Communications and can be reached at: info@ellecommunications.ca.

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