Seventeen billionaires just declared that they fully expect to end their lives a lot poorer, but the world may wind up far richer for it.
That’s the number of new signatories who’ve committed to the Giving Pledge, an annual oath launched in 2010 by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in which billionaires publicly promise to give more than half their wealth to charitable causes. The catch: It has to happen either within their lifetime or in their will. The point is to try to make an impact quickly, rather than start a foundation that continues in perpetuity.
After six years of recruiting, the Giving Pledge’s total class now consists of 154 people from 16 countries. Each inductee chooses their own cause, something they probably could have done on their own. That is, if they were smart enough to execute it. On the flip side, signing the pledge gives each billionaire access to perhaps the world’s most exclusive boardroom. As Gates puts it in his press release, the communal goal is to give in a "bold and effective" way. "Melinda, Warren and I are glad to have the opportunity to learn with them and learn from them," he says.
For instance, this is a crew that holds an annual conference to share ideas on solving issues other than their designated pet problems. This year’s topics included re-thinking how to empower women in the global economy, fix the environment, spur urban renewal, and fund scientific game-changers. In other words no one’s splurging here. Why make it rain just once when you can spend your largess wisely, creating social good that can actually scale?
To that end, this year’s list marks a couple of firsts. It’s the first time that representatives from Saudi Arabia (Saudi prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud) and China (dairy magnate Gensheng Niu) have climbed aboard. Because of the esteem that comes with joining up, it’s safe to say that those representations could be considered establishing a foothold in a new market. And leveraging Chinese power for the greater good could have an especially big return. That country has the second most billionaires after the U.S. (The current ledger: America 540, China 251. But add up who’s earning big in the entire Asia-Pacific region, and their stack of golden wallets would quickly dwarf ours.) So far, there’s little danger of the GivingPledge running out of potential candidates. Per Forbes, the world has minted more than 1,800 billionaires.
This is also the first year that one company’s entire founding team has signed on at the same time. (Unless you count 2010 when Paul Allen signed the pledge right after Gates started it.) That honor belongs to Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk. (You can read the bios of all 17 of the new signatories here).
In a way, the Airbnb signups seem representative of the cultural shift that Warren, Bill and Melinda are probably seeking. GivingPledgers certainly join at all ages and from across all industries. (The oldest, banker David Rockefeller, is 100.) Still, there seems to be a movement afoot. A couple of years ago, two Groupon execs signed the pledge in close succession. Then came Facebook alums Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, along with Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna.
Turns out, it’s okay to be building a company while giving away a substantial amount of what you’re taking home. The payoff is that you can afford to save the world while you’re still living in it.
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