The announcement brings to 40 the number of billionaires and wealthy executives who have publicly agreed to the pledge. Buffett has promised to donate more than 99 percent of his wealth. He is giving the greatest part of his fortune, estimated in March at $47 billion by Forbes Magazine, in annual installments to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We’re hoping that America, which is the most generous society on earth, becomes even more generous over time,” Buffett said in a telephone conference today. “We hope that not only will that norm move toward even greater philanthropic contributions but also toward smarter ones.”
The pledges come at a time when many philanthropic causes in the U.S. are barely recovering from a tough two years as individual and corporate donations declined during the credit crunch and recession that followed the subprime crisis. All charitable giving to nonprofits in 2009 fell 3.6 percent to $303.6 billion from $315 billion, according to a report published by the Giving USA Foundation. That was worse than the 2 percent drop to $307.7 billion in 2008.
“It’s a tremendous response over a very short period of time,” Melissa Berman, chief executive officer of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, said in a phone interview. “The idea is really resonating with people who have truly significant resources. What’s going to be real interesting is if this entire group of 40 all begins to make phone calls.”
Buffett, chairman of the Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said he contacted about 70 to 80 of the U.S.’s wealthiest people to ask them to join the program called the Giving Pledge.
“It was a very soft sell,” Buffett said.
In June, Eli Broad and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed the initiative. Bloomberg, who is the majority owner of Bloomberg L.P., Bloomberg News’s parent company, became a member of the group of 40.
“I’ve always thought that the best thing to do is to make the world better for your kids and your grandkids rather than just give them some money,” said Bloomberg, who joined Buffett on the conference call. “Sure, everybody that’s wealthy wants to leave their kids enough money so that they will never be destitute, but I always wanted to make sure that you don’t leave them so much money that it ruins their lives.”
Broad, former chairman of insurer SunAmerica Inc. and founder of homebuilder KB Home, said he and his wife, Edythe, will give 75 percent of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Broad pocketed $3.4 billion when he sold his 19 percent stake in SunAmerica.
Rockefeller, whose wealth has been estimated at $2.2 billion by Forbes magazine this year, has given away more than $900 million in his lifetime, including $100 million to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2005.
“Our family continues to be united in the belief that those who have benefitted the most from our nation’s economic system have a special responsibility to give back to our society in meaningful ways,” Rockefeller said in a letter posted on the Giving Pledge website. “I hope others will accept this challenge -- and opportunity -- and will join us in this worthwhile endeavor.”
EBay Inc. founder Pierre Omidyar said in his letter that he and his wife, Pam, had pledged in 2001 to give away “the vast majority of our wealth” during their lifetime.
“We have more money than our family will ever need,” he said. “There’s no need to hold on to it when it can be put to use today, to help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.”
Aiming for $1 Billion
T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital LLC, said that while he enjoys making money, he also enjoys giving it away, which “is a close second.”
The oil executive has given almost $800 million to charity.
“I look forward to the day I hit the $1 billion mark,” Pickens said in his letter. “I’m not a big fan of inherited wealth. It generally does more harm than good.”
Buffett said those who joined the pledge will meet regularly at three or four dinners around the country in the near future “and invite others” to come along.
“In one case, one couple took the idea to their children, and the children talked them into moving up their thoughts. They hit the 50 percent level,” Buffett said. “It’s already having an effect.”
Taking the Pledge
Those who have joined the Giving Pledge, as listed on its website, are: Paul G. Allen, Laura and John Arnold, Michael R. Bloomberg, Eli and Edythe Broad, Warren Buffett, Michele Chan and Patrick Soon-Shiong, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, Ann and John Doerr, Larry Ellison, Bill and Melinda Gates, Barron Hilton, Jon and Karen Huntsman, Joan and Irwin Jacobs, George B. Kaiser, Elaine and Ken Langone, Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, Lorry I. Lokey, George Lucas, Alfred E. Mann, Bernie and Billi Marcus, Thomas S. Monaghan, Tashia and John Morgridge, Pierre and Pam Omidyar, Bernard and Barbro Osher, Ronald O. Perelman, Peter G. Peterson, T. Boone Pickens, Julian H. Robertson Jr., David Rockefeller, David M. Rubenstein, Herb and Marion Sandler, Vicki and Roger Sant, Walter Scott Jr., Jim and Marilyn Simons, Jeff Skoll, Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor, Jim and Virginia Stowers, Ted Turner, Sanford and Joan Weill, Shelby White.