Can The Giving Pledge help philanthropy go global?

Philanthropists Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Photo by: Stuart Isett / Fortune Live Media and The Henry Ford

Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal made headlines over the summer when he announced he would donate his personal fortune, valued at $32 billion dollars, to charity. His inspiration? Bill and Melinda Gates. The pair has commended the commitment, in part because it was done so publicly, a model of philanthropy they have championed with “The Giving Pledge.”

Launched by the Gateses and Warren Buffett in 2010, The Giving Pledge is a campaign that invites the wealthy to give more than half of their money to philanthropic causes or charitable organizations.

Pledgers representing 14 countries beyond the United States have signed The Giving Pledge since its international expansion in 2013 (Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom). But only a handful of the 138 individuals and families on the list are based in or originally from the developing countries and emerging economies this philanthropy is meant to benefit. As global development is increasingly seen as a process funded by citizens and governments to achieve their own aspirations in their own countries, expectations are high for developing countries’ wealthy elite to chip in.

‘The coffin has no pockets’

“One reason why people choose to sign the Giving Pledge is because they are eager to connect with their peers who are equally as passionate about giving and may have different experiences to share or be at different points in their philanthropy journey,” Robert Rosen, director of philanthropic partnerships at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explained in an email to Devex.

“We think that idea holds steady whether you’re from the United States, like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, or you were born in Sudan, like Dr. Mo Ibrahim, or in Zimbabwe, like Strive Masiyiwa,” Rosen added.

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Ibrahim, who built a $1.1 billion fortune in the telecommunications industry, referred to his modest roots in Nubia, the region between Egypt and Sudan, when he recalled the old saying that the coffin has no pockets. “When they wrap you, you cannot take your Amex or Visa with you, so what's the point?” he said in an interview with Devex Impact. “This is part of our culture, that we really have to share. You cannot have your dinner and your neighbor going hungry.”

Ibrahim said his conversations with friends and colleagues reveal some of the barriers that prevent other developing country billionaires from joining him in signing the Giving Pledge. Beyond the fact that there are simply fewer billionaires in lower-income countries, Ibrahim also points to the “belief that the state should deal with the least privileged.” Each region holds its own challenges, he added, mentioning that the Middle East billionaires he has spoken with prefer to direct their wealth toward their family members.

"No, philanthropy is giving to people you never met in your life.” he said. “Looking after your immediate extended family or tribe is not philanthropy.” In his Giving Pledge statement, which each philanthropist is asked to write as part of this model of open giving, Ibrahim struck a similar chord. He called it an honor “to join those wonderful men and women whose wealth and fame does not obscure or cloud the simple fact that they are part of this wonderful human tribe,” and he said that when Bill Gates suggested Ibrahim join the pledge, he did not hesitate.

Ellen Remmer of The Philanthropic Initiative in Boston, Massachusetts, further expanded on the differences between philanthropy in the U.S. and elsewhere, saying the term itself does not always translate. Talking with Devex about TPI’s partnership in Hong Kong, she said that for donors in this city with the highest density of billionaires in the world, the word philanthropy tends to translate as charity, and that can be less appealing than concepts like social or impact investing.

While the United States has an established culture of philanthropy, with policies and social norms that support it, those institutional incentives are not always present elsewhere. “Most countries don’t have the infrastructure of nonprofits, or the transparency or the regulations or the accountability,” Remmer said, adding that some people are simply wary of replicating a model that is seen as American in origin.

A global brand?

While the Giving Pledge may have been “made in the USA,” it is creating, and catering to, a rising socio-economic class looking to leave a legacy with the money they make. That is: the super rich.

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“As much as they may be African, Asian, European, or Latin American, the wealthiest billionaires are also part of a growing, global culture of the ultra-rich,” wrote Brad Smith, president of Foundation Center, in a blog post responding to the first wave of global pledgers in February 2013.

“They are densely networked through business and investment ties and ‘hang’ together in places like Davos, Aspen, and at the Clinton Global Initiative. In deciding to join something like the Giving Pledge they are more likely to look to the example of their fellow billionaires, wherever on the globe they may be from, than to pay credence to the skeptics in their own backyard,” Smith wrote.

Smith and his team put together a transparency tool called Eye on the Giving Pledge compiling the profiles of all 138 pledgers. Their profile of real estate magnate and recent pledger Sylvan Adams noted his interest in the competitive nature of the Giving Pledge.

“The Giving Pledge is inspiring successful men and women to engage in what I would call ‘competitive’ philanthropy,” Adams said. “Directing the same competitive instincts that these driven people employed to achieve the pinnacle of financial and social success, the Giving Pledge is encouraging us to outdo one another in giving our wealth away.”

Those who choose to go their own way rather than join The Giving Pledge are quick to point out that it does not paint a complete picture of global philanthropy. Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu explains that many developing country billionaires, himself included, give back in ways that align with the spirit of The Giving Pledge even without joining the billionaires on the list.

“It is my experience that wealthy patrons from developing countries are no less philanthropic than others, and no less inclined to donate a substantial portion of their resources to society's less fortunate, whether through an established charity or informally by directly supporting members of their families and communities,” Elumelu wrote in an email to Devex.

He added, “It is not at all rare to hear that a wealthy African, for example, has contributed solely to the development and staffing of schools, hospitals, training camps, factories and more in his community, with no expectation of profit or return.”

Elumelu, who coined the term ‘Africapitalism’ to capture a spirit of homegrown African development investment, said he has focused his philanthropy on the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Program, which aims to help 10,000 African startups generate at least 1 million new jobs.

Still, he does see value in fellow developing country billionaires signing The Giving Pledge, in part because of the message it sends about the ambition, reach, and sustainability that philanthropy can achieve. “It is important that the developing world know that its wealthy individuals contribute generously and continuously to the advancement of others,” he said.

There are plenty of billionaires not listed on The Giving Pledge who give the majority of their wealth away, but do so privately, through places of religious worship, or after their death. Rosen of the Gates Foundation emphasized the power of giving regardless of whether the intentions are made explicit as in The Giving Pledge model.

“Though we believe that the Giving Pledge is a simple and powerful way to encourage giving, we have a tremendous amount of respect for people who choose to give in whatever way suits them best,” he said.

Philanthropy in community

Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center, told Devex that The Giving Pledge offers those who might want to avoid the spotlight examples of how giving can be less about the donor and more about the impact he or she can make.

“It makes it normative in a society or a culture where it may not be the norm,” she said. “And with every influential donor in another country that signs up there can be a multiplier effect to motivate others to act and give.”

Nicolas Berggruen, a pledger who founded a private investment company as well as a California-based think tank focused on governance, said those who sign up benefit from sharing their approaches to philanthropy and learning from one another. They discuss how to have maximum impact on an individual level and in collaboration with one another, and dive into areas of focus ranging from education to global health to medical research to impact investing.

“The Giving Pledge has done a very good job at not only getting people to make a commitment but getting them together,” Berggruen told Devex, mentioning annual retreats that give him the opportunity to get together with fellow pledge-makers ranging from Mark Zuckerberg to Pierre and Pam Omidyar.

Several pledgers, like Sara Blakely of Spanx, explain that their motivation to join the effort comes in part from the opportunity to learn from a forum of philanthropic thought leaders. Camarena said Blakely was also inspired by the example of her friend and mentor Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, and one of the first international billionaires to sign The Giving Pledge.

“Part of their success is to get people to feel more deeply and more strongly about their philanthropy. It’s not just sign up and you’re part of a club, but it actually functions really like a community,” Berggruen said.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.