Giving it all away for good

When I first read about the Giving Pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s campaign to get billionaires to pledge away half their fortune, or more, to charity, my first reaction was one of distaste.

By Iman Kurdi (Issues)

Published: Tue 17 Aug 2010, 9:04 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:10 AM

It seemed such an ostentatious thing to do. Not content with being billionaires, they now seek the brownie points of overt philanthropy. They seek out admiration, approval, esteem, not for being rich but for being generous. I even thought there was a whiff of arrogance and condescension about it: how many of us would give away half of our fortunes? How many of us could?

Partly it is a cultural thing. Where I come from we are taught that the mark of true generosity is discretion, humbleness, modesty. There is nothing wrong with giving away half your fortune, quite the contrary it is laudable, but it is announcing it with such pomp and circumstance that seems wrong. There is something also in this approach, where the top members of the club of the American super-rich put pressure on the lesser members of their very select club, that suggests wealth is somehow unhealthy and should be dismantled. It just struck me as odd coming from the US, the flag-waver of capitalism, it seemed a contradiction, motivate people to get rich and then motivate those who have succeeded spectacularly to give it away even more spectacularly. It was as if you ask someone to build an intricate house of cards only to ask him to blow it away after he has finally reached his goal.

Then there is the sticky issue of taxes. Setting up a charitable foundation is a pretty crafty way of evading taxes in the US. OK, you don’t get to keep the money but you get to decide who gets it, plus you can even get a stipend on assets you transfer to a charitable foundation!

Finally, it was also the word ‘philanthropy’ that piqued me. It is not giving your fortune away to charity, or to the needy, but to ‘philanthropy’, a word which means an activity that promotes the well-being of mankind and whose Greek root means for the love of mankind. How pompous is that! And that’s just it, the trusts and foundations set up by the super-rich as vehicles for their philanthropy, reflect not so much the needs of mankind but the preferences and aspirations of those who set them up. They are vehicles driven by the will not of society but of an individual. And thus what you get is money for the arts, for scholarships, for new hospital wings, for all kinds of things that are most definitely a good thing but not necessarily the best use of those millions of dollars when millions are dying of poverty.

But then Ramadan started and I decided I must be kinder to American billionaires. Warren Buffet is pledging to give more than 99 per cent of his wealth to philanthropy. With an estimated net worth of $47 billion, those 99 per cent add up to something around $46.5 billion, if you consider that the American Red Cross spends around $3 billion a year, that’s a massive injection into the charitable sector, and that’s from just one of the forty signatories to the Giving Pledge. However I cannot resist pointing out that the remaining one per cent is the not inconsiderable sum of $470 million. His family will hardly be poor when his fortune is given away.

What won me over, however, are two things: the scale of the money this pledge could raise and the approach of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Forbes 400, that’s the worlds 400 richest people, or the billionaires to put it in simpler terms, own an estimated $1.3 trillion. If every one of them signed the pledge that would be $650 billion given to charity. Of course, that is not going to happen, but since many have decided to give more than 50 per cent, with some, like Buffet, giving away almost all of their fortunes, the potential income that could be raised is truly enormous. There is the potential to actually make a real impact on human welfare.

And that’s where my admiration of what Bill and Melinda Gates are doing with their charitable foundation comes in. It’s their results led approach that I like. They have picked a number of areas where they think a concrete goal is achievable, for instance eradicating malaria, and put the funds and programmes in place to make that goal a reality. It’s an intelligent can-do approach. But what I like best about the foundation is that it is to liquidate itself within 50 years of Bill Gates death. In other words the money has to be spent on achieving results in the medium term and not in creating an institution that provides a glorious legacy to those whose name it bears.

But most of all I hope the idea of the Giving Pledge snowballs and that not just billionaires, but millionaires (I read somewhere that there are 10 million millionaires), modestly wealthy individuals and anyone else who can leave money to charity whilst still providing well enough for their loved ones, end up giving away a part of their fortune. Perhaps it will take off globally, including the Muslim world where our millionaires may well prefer to give their wealth away with more discretion, as is our way. Maybe it will bring about a day when giving to charity becomes as attractive and socially rewarded as accumulating wealth. Since it is Ramadan I am letting myself believe that this is attainable. We live in hope as they say.

Iman Kurdi is an Arab writer based in Nice, France. For comments, write to

More news from OPINION