Giving (Almost) All of It Away

The two richest men in the United States, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are encouraging other billionaires, in the United States and abroad, to give away the bulk of their fortunes to philanthropic causes.

Gates, a co-founder of the software giant Microsoft Corporation, and Buffett, chairman of the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. investment company, launched their campaign, the Giving Pledge, in June 2010 to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in the United States to commit to giving away at least 50 percent of their wealth to philanthropy.

Steve Case, the founder of the Internet company AOL Inc., and his wife, Jean, his co-chair at the Case Foundation, signed the pledge recently.

“We have learned a lot over the years both through our philanthropic successes and our failures, and believe that by working together and exchanging lessons learned, the impact of the backers of the Giving Pledge can be enhanced,” Steve and Jean Case said in a statement. “That is why we are joining with Bill, Melinda, Warren, and so many others to make this public commitment.”

As of December 2010, 57 billionaires have joined the campaign. Forbes magazine estimates the charitable contributions will amount to $600 billion.

“The idea of dynastic wealth is crazy,” Buffett told ABC News in November. “The idea that you should be able to do nothing in this world for the rest of your life and [the lives of] your children and grandchildren … does not really seem to be very American.” Buffett, who is 80 years old, said his wealth has come from a fortuitous set of factors, including being born male, white and in the United States with its free-market system.

On numerous occasions, Buffett has said he has accumulated enormous wealth because of his skill in identifying under-priced stocks, while other people have done more noble things in their lives without receiving much material benefit. To illustrate his point, he said soldiers who save the lives of their comrades in battle are rewarded with medals and great teachers get thank-you notes. He said that he is deeply grateful for what life has brought him, and his goal now is to use his wealth intelligently so it benefits the maximum number of people.

“I want to do the most intelligent job I can without respect to whether the recipients are male or female or black or white or American or African or whatever,” he said. “I want my money to have the greatest impact on improving the lives of the most people.”

Buffett plans to give away 99 percent of his fortune to philanthropy, with 75 percent of it going to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which targets improving global health and the U.S. education system.

“Great wealth brings incredible, enormous responsibility” to give back to society, Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates and co-chair of the Gates Foundation, said in the same television news interview.

Buffett and Gates visited China in September and plan a visit to India in 2011 to meet with wealthy people in those countries to talk about philanthropy.

Chen Guangbiao, a Chinese businessman who has acquired a fortune estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, has embraced the Buffett and Gates appeal for philanthropy, and he has convinced 100 other wealthy Chinese to join him in donating the bulk of their fortunes to charity, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.

Buffett said he was amazed at the similarities in experience that he found in the Chinese magnates he met. “These people talked about their children. They talked about their businesses. They talked about the different role of government there in terms of philanthropy,” he said.

Gates said the Chinese are at an earlier stage of philanthropy than Americans, and the Chinese “will put their own imprint on it.” He emphasized that he and Buffett did not try to urge the Chinese to adopt American notions of philanthropy.

PHILANTHROPY, AMERICAN STYLE

Explaining why their foundation donated $90 million to help the Tennessee school system, Melinda Gates said the schools were preparing only one-third of the students for university, and a democracy cannot be sustained by a citizenry with so few university graduates. Developing innovative teaching approaches and curriculums and providing technology in each classroom require extra money, she said.

The Gates Foundation and Buffett target immediate needs, avoiding endowments, which provide long-term funding for many institutions. However, in inviting other billionaires to join the campaign, they leave the question of how to give to each person.

Michael Marsicano, author of the article “Philanthropy Distinguishes America” published in The Triangle Business Journal, points out that there is some financial reward from the U.S. government when it comes to charitable donations and that respect for individual choices regarding giving is also an American trait. The U.S. tax code rewards citizens who give to charities by reducing their taxes, even when those charities contradict the government. An example of such a charity is a legal aid group that provides counsel to illegal immigrants in the United States.

“This is uniquely American and profoundly important,” Marsicano writes. He says individual donors and charities at times are more innovative than the levels of government in the United States. Often charities’ work precedes the U.S. government’s involvement in a societal problem.

For instance, Andrew Carnegie, a steel tycoon, launched the public library system in the United States with his private fortune early in the 20th century, when he saw that illiteracy was an unaddressed problem. Local governments later took over the funding and operation of public libraries.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. )

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Remote Publishing: Phillip Kurata Staff Writer

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