"...More than 36 billionaires have promised at least 50% of their fortunes to charity, or $600 billion in total pledges, via The Giving Pledge, started by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates..."
- SOURCE: Stephanie Strom. (August 4, 2010). "Pledge to Give Away Half Gains Billionaire Adherents." NY Times. View website.
The enthusiasm part is obvious: Many are excited about this "new" source of capital available for doing good (i.e., supporting non-profits who have seen their contributions drop along with the economy in the last two years). Behind the distaste piece lies the fact that much of these funds were already allocated to charities -- public pledge or not -- as well as the fear that the motivation behind the pledge was more about publicity than warm fuzzies or love of fellow mankind. Buffet is honest in addressing both of these these reactionshere.
Whatever your take on the matter, it's worth glancing here at some of the pledge letters written by these billionaires. It's a bit like reading People magazine or following Hollywood stars on Twitter -- there is that glimpse into the personal lives of the untouchable rich and famous. (Not that I know anything about that passion, of course. Pop culture references are, unfortunately, often lost on me!) That's not the reason to read it though. The fact is that these letters contain important lessons and perspectives on wealth, the feelings of guilt or ownership around having it, and how certain billionaires view their responsibility regarding what to do with it.
This pledge also makes me think about giving more broadly. (Btw, for a good read on the topic, Bill Clinton's book appropriately titled Giving is healthy exploration of the topic and is full of examples of people and organizations that do it well.) What role do us non-billionaires play? Well, apparently, of the $300 billion given to charities in the U.S. each year, 80% comes from individuals. Along these lines, a new non-profit, Global Fast, is trying to empower more people to believe in the power of their small gifts. Relying on the power of social networks, it helps people to channel money normally spent on food into charities by suggesting that people fast at some regular interval. Maybe no food once a month for a day. Maybe you skip that $4 coffee once a week. In doing so, no extra money is required from the budget and in the process, the person fasting learns to identify with the plight of the world's millions who do not get enough to eat. (Today happens to be my day to fast, so it's hard to not think about it! But, yes, I'm well aware that it's a luxury to do this when I know the kitchen is full of food for tomorrow.)
But what if we translate what Global Fast is doing into similar initiatives in the environmental realm? What if we fasted from water or lighting or electricity or gasoline or energy on regular intervals? No more than a gallon of water per day once a week. No lights once a month. No electricity for one night per week. No gasoline once per quarter. And what if we channeled those savings into charities which support rural electrification with solar panels for the world's billions without adequate electricity? Or towards non-profits that drill wells to provide clean water around the world? And in the process, we would also be reminded of how spoiled we all are (you know what I mean) and how we have a responsibility to create a more equal playing field.