Wednesday, August 4, 2010

When your worth is measured in billions, the money can lose its purpose: How many Ferraris can one man use? Donald Trump once said that money was never a big motivation for him, “except as a way to keep score.”

Now, 40 of America’s billionaires have decided to walk off the court. Or at least shave points.

They have answered a call from investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates to give 50 percent or more of their fortunes to charity, either during their lifetimes or upon their deaths.

The announcement of the 40 names — which ranged from filmmaker George Lucas to pizza maven Thomas Monaghan to New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — was made Wednesday, just six weeks after Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates launched the Giving Pledge.

“We’ve really just started, but already we’ve had a terrific response,” Mr. Buffett said in a press release issued after the announcement. “At its core, the Giving Pledge is about asking wealthy families to have important conversations about their wealth and how it will be used. We’re delighted that people are doing just that — and that so many have decided to not only take this pledge but also to commit to sums far greater than the 50 percent minimum level.”

The Giving Pledge includes testimonials from those who have taken the Gates-Buffett vow and decided to donate their fortunes. Besides the obvious wanting to “do good” message, the notes also touched on issues ranging from what it’s like living with the amounts of money they do to their fear of damaging their children with too much inherited wealth.

Former Citigroup Chairman/CEO Sanford Weill and his wife, Joan, said they “will continue to give away all the wealth we have been so fortunate to make except for a very small percentage allocated to our children and grandchildren between now and the time we pass because we are firm believers that shrouds don’t have pockets.”

None of the notes mentioned such obvious examples of crash-and-burn legacy kids as Paris Hilton or Casey Johnson. Nevertheless, the specter of such cases was cited by Melinda French Gates, wife of the Microsoft icon, as one reason to give away money of this magnitude.

“We do not want to give excessive wealth to our progeny. Giving wealth to young and future unborn children, in our opinion, reduces or eliminates the character-building challenges ahead of them in life that they would otherwise face,” she said.

According to Forbes, there are 403 billionaires in the U.S. with a collective net worth of $1.3 trillion. Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates — ranked by Forbes as the two richest men in the country — are leading by example. With a combined net worth of $100 billion, the two decided early on not to hoard their wealth.

The Gates established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 1994, which is the world’s largest philanthropic foundation, to which they have since donated $28 billion.

In 2006, Mr. Buffett announced his intention to give 99 percent of his fortune to philanthropic foundations, including $6.4 billion to the Gates foundation.

In his statement “My Philanthropic Pledge,” which announced the drive to harness other American billionaires, Mr. Buffett said that although he allows himself certain material pleasures, nothing is more important than family and close friends. At one point, the statement was reminiscent of a line by Tyler Durden, a character in the film “Fight Club,” who said: “The things you own end up owning you.”

“Some material things make my life more enjoyable; many, however, would not. I like having an expensive private plane, but owning a half-dozen homes would be a burden,” Mr. Buffett said. “Too often, a vast collection of possessions ends up possessing its owner. The asset I most value, aside from health, is interesting, diverse, and long-standing friends.”

Over the past year, Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett met with dozens of the wealthiest Americans to persuade them to join their mission. Their efforts paid off, and tycoons such as oilman T. Boone Pickens, hotel mogul Barron Hilton, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and businessman David Rubenstein agreed to pledge some of their fortunes.

Lesser-known donors include 36-year-old John D. Arnold, the creator of EnronOnline, investor Ronald Perelman and Ken Langone, former director of the New York Stock Exchange and financial backer of the Home Depot.

One of the more shocking commitments came from Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, who gained the reputation as philanthropist bad boy when he withdrew a large donation from Harvard over the resignation of the university president, Lawrence H. Summers.

In a note to the Giving Pledge, Mr. Ellison wrote that he had already given a large portion of he wealth to “charitable causes” and intends to give away even more in the future.

Media mogul Ted Turner, who also pledged his support and wrote, “I don’t measure success in numbers, but I consider my contributions of more than 1.3 billion dollars to various causes over the years to be one of my proudest accomplishments and the best investment I ever made. Those dollars have improved lives, saved species, fought disease, educated children, inspired chance, challenged ideas and opened minds; and at the time of my death, virtually all my wealth will have gone to charity.

“Looking back, if I had to live my life over, there are things I would do differently, but the one thing I would not change is my charitable giving,” he said.

In another letter, Mr. Bloomberg said that he decided to give because it is a way to show his children that he cares.

“If you want to do something for your children and show home much you love them, the single best thing — by far — is to support organizations that will create a better world for them and their children. And by giving, we inspire others to give of themselves, whether their money or their time,” he wrote.

According to Sean Stannard-Stockton, CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, the pledge, while directed toward billionaires, also will have an impact on everyday Americans, partially because of the commitment of Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett’s celebrity. He also called the pledge list “quite amazing” even though he is not familiar with a few listed.

“I think the much bigger ramification here is the potential for it to influence the way every American gives,” he said. “Bill Gates is only responsible for 1 percent of annual charitable giving. Everyday Americans, however, will see this and it will motivate them to give more.”

The list also will encourage more of America’s wealthiest to give, he said.

“The activity by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates is very influential. We have people like Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook and the guys at Google who cite Warren Buffett as an example of how they manage Google’s finances,” he said.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide