As Salon noted earlier this week, 11 more billionaires joined Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge, making a promise to donate half or more of their fortunes to charity.
The initiative has received broad praise in the media, but little focus has gone into the pledge’s consequences. Light digging into the details, however, shows the pledge to be a very open-ended promise indeed.
First, there is nothing binding in the pledge, described on its website as a “moral commitment to give, not a legal contract.” No doubt the public and social pressure could shame someone with a spare half-billion to follow through, but where this money goes is another question entirely. Giving Pledge guidelines note:
The pledge asks only that the individual give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes or charitable organizations after their death … Each person who takes the Giving Pledge makes an individual decision about which particular causes or organizations they wish to support.
Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, wrote a blog post for On Philanthropy suggesting that the nature of the Giving Pledge could spell trouble for the neediest parts of the nonprofit world:
There is no reason to believe that our billionaires will change the way they conduct their philanthropy when they begin to implement their pledges. That means that almost all of their new money will go to higher education, hospitals, medical schools, museums and arts institutions … the largest nonprofits in the sector. Few or no funds will be targeted to poor and disadvantaged constituencies, those people who need it most. Moreover, little or no money will flow to local social service agencies or to small nonprofits.
Eisenberg doesn’t mention that, since charity type goes unspecified, the pledge framework also leaves room for objectionable (by many people’s lights) causes to get a whole lot of money. The examples mentioned below have not given the pledge, but they highlight the fact that charity comes in many forms, including politically contentious ones. One person’s worthy cause is another’s force for evil. The well-intentioned Giving Pledge drew praise from the media struck by an ostensible paradox: the generous billionaire. But celebrating “the moral commitment to give” is empty without asking “to what” and “why.”
For example, critics of the Koch brothers might praise brother David’s $35 million donation to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History this year, among other donations to the arts. But what about the founding money the Kochs put up a few years ago for Americans for Prosperity, an organization with charitable status that mobilizes support for lower taxes, small government and general free market capitalism?
Likewise, the global warming-denying nonprofit Heartland Institute receives corporate support from companies like Pfizer and Philip Morris. The Walton family reportedly gave Heartland over $300,000. Is that a praiseworthy charitable effort?
Then there’s the charity of Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan. The Domino’s Foundation has given substantial donations to antiabortion initiatives, including $15,000 to the Human Life Center of the Franciscan University of Steubenville — the home of the nation’s only minor degree in “pro-life activities.”