The Billionaire’s Giving Pledge: A letter to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett

Dear Bill and Warren:

Congratulations.  Getting 40 of the world’s wealthiest to sign away a significant amount of their fortunes is a tremendous feat.  As a non-profit worker who has struggled to drive in donor dollars from this target group, I’m impressed, though not surprised.  None of us are.

Not surprised because very few of us have your collective star power.  Nor do we hold Net Jet accounts, making it difficult to run into Sergey and Larry at the nearest hangar.  Oh to be in the billionaire’s club! What an incredibly effective platform from which to raise money.  After all, how can the likes of Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, and my former boss Ronald Perelman say no to you?  How uncomfortable would THAT make it in the skybox of the next U2 concert?

You know that they’re uncomfortable right?  They’re uncomfortable for the same reason you decided to undertake this initiative: charity ineffectiveness.  They know that the majority of charities, while well intentioned, have not radically impacted the world’s greatest challenges – and they don’t like that.  Ineffective is not how they operate.

One of the reasons charity ineffectiveness exists is, as Luke Johnson pointed out in yesterday’s Financial Times, because there are too many of them.  Too many that are too small to have significant impact.  Just as in entrepreneurship, scale is what philanthropy needs.  But you know all this, so forgive me for pointing out the obvious.

What I would like to point out are two things that might come in handy as you head out to save the world:

  • Billionaires are businessmen/women
  • Development workers are not

Why is this important?  Let’s start with how you both convinced your rich pals to sign on to your pact: The media.  How clever of you to use public pressure to strong arm the likes of Boone Pickens to say “I do.”  (Bristol take note.)  Yet be careful not to let the media’s propensity for the feel good anecdotes and images that pull at our heart strings prevent your friends from making tough decisions about charity efforts that are not working.  Those anecdotes and pictures may justify a charity’s existence but they do not give us real insight into the plight of the poor, hungry or diseased.  They spark guilt over our own privilege. It is precisely that privilege – and not guilt – that the 40 or so billionaires bring to the table that you should tap into and leverage.  Allow them to use their business savvy to identify the weakest links – and stand behind them when they do it.

Let them do it, rather than MBAs.  The craze of hiring from Harvard Business School to run a charity, while understandable, is, frankly, misguided.  (Offside everyone should read Nancy Lublin’s Zilch). No, this isn’t the “charities and non-profits are not businesses” refrain, however true that is.  It’s about having confidence in non-MBAs who have demonstrated a commitment to development – and who, thereby, understand that effective change doesn’t come from some slick, quantifiable spreadsheet.  Change is qualitative.  And qualitative is learned on the frontlines, in the slums, ghettos, cassava fields and war zones – not from carefully edited case studies.  Case studies provide no insight or depth into the complicated conditions that make development a harrowing and draining existence and not a formula.  Preparation is merely a tactic in the third world; results a day without a death.  Given such circumstances, it’s not calculation but conscientiousness and commitment that make the difference.

Many mistake the development worker’s commitment as Pollyannaish idealism.  As Bill Easterly points out in his superb book, White Man’s Burden, “many people who work on world poverty are distant from the fantasies and really just want to help the poor and try hard to do their jobs well.”  We do it, not because we can’t get a job on Wall Street, but because we have the compassion and capacity to put up a good fight.

Oh yes, this is all a fight.  There isn’t anything pretty or glorious about saving the world (no matter how sexy Nick Kristof makes it out to be).  And it’s never ending.  There is no exit, no IPO or plaque at the end of it.  Hopefully, however, because of your efforts it will be, finally, a fight where the enemy is outmatched.

Yes, the enemy is bigger than anything you’ve ever seen.  Worse yet, it is ruthless and deadly.  Surprised?  None of us are.

Warmest regards,


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One Comment

  1. Posted August 6, 2010 at 07:09 | Permalink

    One of my favorite pieces of advice is that money doesn’t solve problems, brains solve problems. I wonder how different this scenario would be if instead of donating half their fortunes, these billionaires had been asked to commit to applying the skills that have made them successful in business to solving the world’s greatest challenges. Seems to me that committing yourself to the cause is much more difficult than signing away half of your fortune – and may be more valuable.

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