This year marks a decade since the launch of the Giving Pledge, a new model of philanthropy. The pledge, a brainchild of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett—who were also its first signatories—is a public promise made by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals to give away at least half of their fortunes to charitable causes during their lifetimes or in their wills.
The idea is meant to propel a new standard for generosity, encouraging those who are able to “give more, give sooner, and give smarter,” according to the pledge. “At its best, philanthropy takes risks that governments can’t, and corporations won’t,” Bill and Melinda Gates wrote in their 2020 annual letter, which highlights the work of their foundation, now in its 20th year.
The Gateses, who have long been interested in global health, moved particularly quickly as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. They committed $50 million, along with others, to help identify, assess, develop, and scale up treatments, an effort that ultimately aims to make these treatments available and affordable for all. That endeavor accounts for half the total that the couple has earmarked for fighting the pandemic across many avenues: increased testing and improved public health efforts in their hometown of Seattle; early research at the epicenter of the outbreak in China; and better detection and protection of at-risk populations in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Although the Giving Pledge, which is administered by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, signifies a commitment to giving and encourages big bets, it doesn’t tell people how or where they should direct their efforts. “Philanthropy is very personal,” Melinda Gates explained in a 2010 interview on public broadcasting. “To us, it doesn’t matter what people give, whether it’s to the culture or to climate, humanity, or societal issues.” The pledge also doesn’t manage funds from its signatories or provide any oversight on participants’ giving. Instead, it encourages philanthropists to support issues that they find personally inspiring and that can benefit society.
Forty American signatories joined the pledge during 2010, its debut year, but the idea quickly garnered global attention, with the first international philanthropists joining in 2013. Today, a total of 206 pledgers are spread across 23 countries.
More than 20 of these philanthropists have partnered with Pew. Bill and Melinda Gates, for instance, supported the Pew Research Center’s extensive survey work on how people are using libraries in the digital age, an effort that helped answer questions about which services the public relies on most. The research found that access to in-depth resources and databases, free computers and internet, and use of library buildings as public gathering places were among those most highly prized. Overall, 63 percent said their community would suffer a major negative impact if their local library were to close. The Gateses were also among supporters of the Pew Research Center’s work on the evolution of the internet and how Americans use this technology, and their desire to learn about digital tools such as smartphones, apps, and 3D printers.
Another signatory who has closely collaborated with Pew through the years is Dallas businesswoman and philanthropist Lyda Hill. She often cites Buffett’s observation that the Giving Pledgers are among the few whose philanthropic capacity allows them, or even obliges them, to tackle the problems and challenges that others can’t and won’t do. Hill has certainly taken that advice to heart in her partnership with Pew. Her lifelong interest in science and the natural world and her philanthropy’s focus on measurable results have led her to support Pew’s work to protect the ocean and marine life, improve food safety, and promote smarter use of antibiotics to help curb antibiotic resistance. Most recently, Hill and Pew have collaborated on a project aimed at helping to restore America’s national parks after decades of deferred maintenance, an effort that we hope will spur lasting change for these treasured places.
“I wanted to do big things through my philanthropy and am fortunate to be in a position to do so,” Hill has said. “Giving money away is harder than many people realize—you want to be generous, but you also want to be wise. The Giving Pledge has created a community of philanthropists. Each has their own goals and interests, but we share a commitment to giving it away and exchanging lessons about how to approach philanthropy with intention and impact.”
“Joining the Giving Pledge means becoming part of a motivated community where some of the world’s most engaged philanthropists can discuss their challenges, successes, and failures, and share ideas about smarter giving and how to best leverage their philanthropy,” says Robert Rosen, director of philanthropic partnerships at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which oversees the Giving Pledge.
Ten years on, it’s clear that this visionary initiative has helped to foster a greater culture of giving. “The Giving Pledge has opened the door to a new type of philanthropy, one which has the potential to tackle problems at scale and to solve them not just for the short term, but in perpetuity. That takes significant investment, and the willingness and ability to stay the course,” says Sally O’Brien, Pew’s senior vice president for institutional partnerships. “This aligns closely with Pew’s investment philosophy and has provided a number of opportunities for partnership between Pew and members of the Giving Pledge, who share our commitment to creating lasting change for the public good in the U.S. and across the globe.”
For more information about philanthropic partnerships at Pew, please contact senior vice president Sally O’Brien at 202-540-6525 or [email protected]
Demetra Aposporos is the senior editor of Trust.