The essay below appeared in the July 20, 2010 edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. After you've read it, let me know what you think.
The Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge Won’t Do Much Good Unless It Changes Philanthropy
By Pablo Eisenberg
Most of the nonprofit world seems to be agog over the news that Bill and Melinda Gates, along with their friend Warren Buffett, are joining together to ask fellow billionaires to sign a pledge to give at least one-half of their fortunes to charity.
That could lead to an enormous increase in the amount of money available to nonprofit organizations. Fortune magazine estimates that if the people on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans all made the pledge, an additional $600-billion could flow to nonprofit groups—twice the amount Americans gave last year.
When will this money be distributed to charities? Mr. Buffett has said that he plans to give away 99 percent of his fortune while he is alive or at his death, and he has made clear in his gifts to the Gates Foundation that he wants the money to be distributed quickly rather than left to sit in the foundation’s coffers. But will other donors do the same, or will they put their money into foundations that give only a small percentage of their assets every year?
Who will provide the leadership to increase the quality of philanthropy, not just the amount of money given? So much of the giving wealthy donors and foundations now do is lackluster and does not involve risk taking or innovation. Nor does it seek to solve urgent public needs. Will the new pledges mean more of the same?
What steps will be taken to ensure public accountability? Will the funds that are steered into new or existing foundations follow the Gateses’ approach, namely grant-making institutions governed by a very few family members that, in a real sense, are not really publicly accountable? Do we want an explosion of these tax-exempt oligarchic entities with huge assets that can help set public priorities without public discussion or a political process? Would this be a healthy development for democracy? If not, what can be done to mitigate the potential undemocratic nature of these new mega-foundations?
Perhaps the most troubling issues posed by the Gates-Buffett crusade is its potential to intensify the inequities that exist both in the nonprofit world and in the rest of society.
Foundations, corporations, and other forms of institutional philanthropy tend to favor the nation’s most-privileged citizens and neglect the neediest people and organizations. An outsize share of the money from those institutions goes to established colleges, hospitals, and arts and cultural organizations. Only a small amount finds its way to organizations that serve vulnerable children, low-income people, minorities, women, the disabled, and other disadvantaged constituencies. A tiny portion of philanthropic money is channeled to groups that seek to influence public policies.
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