The philanthropic billionaire pledge

We live in a unique period of history. The computer age has generated an unprecedented number of self-made millionaires and billionaires who combine their intellectual, technological and philanthropic prowess to good effect.

We live in a unique period of history. The computer age has generated an unprecedented number of self-made millionaires and billionaires (such as Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Michael Dell, Sir Alan Sugar, Sir Peter Rigby etc).

They combine their intellectual, technological and philanthropic prowess to best effect, leveraging both their wealth and technology backgrounds to create and advance a variety of world-class endeavours and high-impact initiatives that will dramatically enact social and cultural change to improve people's lives.

It is not unique to the field of IT, but almost without exception all of these individuals share a social conscience manifested in their generous philanthropic ventures.

Right now, this social conscience appears to have reached fever pitch. Philanthropy is the latest fashion accessory. The day before Bill Gates announced his Billionaire Pledge to promote philanthropy I talked to IT pioneer and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley, and asked her what she thought the driver was for this new wave of philanthropic enthusiasm.

"I think the money is coming from a different group. When you look at the people on the Rich List, the vast majority are self-made from the arts, IT etc, whereas 20 years ago, it was mostly inherited money. And the tax regime has become better.

"People talk about the tax regime being so much worse than the US. This is not true. With the exception of donating non-quoted shares and art, it's just as good as the US. It's just too complex. Nobody can understand it."

How does the 'Billionaire Pledge' help in the overall world of philanthropy?

Most - if not all - of these individuals have been giving, admittedly under the umbrella of their foundations, for a couple of decades. It is a tax-efficient, planned process in the US. So suddenly "outing" them in a list of 40 for doing what they were already doing seems academic.

One only has to read some of the letters - for example from Paul Allen, Larry Ellison, Pierre Omidyar, Jeff Skoll, Michael Bloomberg - to realise that they had already planned to give huge proportions of their wealth away well before the announcement. In fact, most of the 400+ US billionaires are already doing the same and many to the same or a greater extent.

Dame Stephanie is no exception, although she pledged 100% of her wealth to charitable causes over 20 years ago and has already given away 94%.

Global collaboration and integration on strategic initiatives

The real trick is trying to get this group of philanthropists and others to

a) give most of it away while they are still on this earth and in a position to exercise their power and business expertise on their initiatives, and
b) and most importantly to work collaboratively on topics of international significance.

To quote Katherine Fulton, who has advised many leading philanthropists, "If only 5%-10% of the new billionaires are imaginative in their giving they will transform philanthropy within the next 20 years".

But imagination requires more than going it alone in that delightful, disjointed, entrepreneurial spirit. It needs hard, selfless effort delivered in a constructive, co-ordinated and collaborative manner. And collaboration means establishing global giving consortia prepared to take on one strategic issue, focus on that goal, do what it takes to solve it before moving on to the next.

I asked Dame Stephanie how the wealth creators and donators internationally could achieve a more centralised approach to social and world-changing initiatives with greater collaboration and integration of strategies and projects. This would minimise the current situation of disparate, identical projects and charities being formed in different parts of the world with the inevitable duplication of time, effort and money.

"There is something quite endemic about that fragmentation. In the US, a few years ago, I was on the board of a charity called National Alliance for Autism Research on the east coast (this was one I helped with its infrastructure). There was an equal sized one, Cure Autism Now on the west coast, (plus a few smaller ones too). They were very different in culture. But they were pulled together into 'Autism Speaks' which was a tremendous job to try and get the two organisations to work together. That made a terrific difference to fundraising and particular lobbying. But now, there are break-offs again, with a number of philanthropists setting up their own charities all over again."

"In 2001-02 I funded some work for the International Year of Autism. We found over 200 disparate organisations in the autism sector. Charities and not-for-profits started, for the first time, to join together and communicate with each other. But only some of those alliances continued at the end of year."

Collaboration and integration

So philanthropy is not the panacea. It still requires the persistent discipline of co-ordination and a respectable level of planned integration with the strategies of advisers, governments, charities, NGOs and the media. It needs proper checks and balances and accountability, to really have lasting global effects. We need to encourage more wealth creators to selflessly pursue greater collaboration on global initiatives, so that the gain to society can be even richer than it is now.

There has been much criticism about the 'billionaire pledge'. But let's not forget that philanthropy is still the wealth donator's choice. So we should be trying to influence them positively to contribute even more to society, as they have the ability to do what governments of the world are unable or unwilling to do.

They can break down barriers and leverage their business acumen, wealth, influence and power to transform the landscape of the world permanently by enacting major cultural and social changes in our lifetimes. In that respect, we should be convincing all wealth creators from around the globe to commit to similar pledges to give proportionate amounts of their wealth away.

Yva Thakurdas is a management consultant, philanthropist and freelance writer.

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