General Ramblings: Such Good Pals

August 1, 2011       Paul Clolery      

President Barack Obama recently met with billionaire philanthropic pied pipers Bill Gates and Warren Buffett at the White House to get a face-to-face update on the “Giving Pledge.” The fun-boy-two have been hitting up other moguls for pledges that they will give away at least half of their fortunes to charity.

Does anyone else see the irony in this picture?

The guys who are trying to get rich folks to be more philanthropic are meeting with the political leader who has put reducing the tax break for such giving on the table as part of the debt reduction negotiations. There’s more on that point in a minute.

In roughly one year, Gates and Buffett say they have secured “pledges” from 60 people totaling $100 billion. Is that a lot of money? No, not really. According to Forbes magazine, Gates is worth $56 billion and Buffett is worth $50 billion. They are second and third, respectively, on the list.

They have reached out to deliriously rich friends and business associates such as New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who already is a generous philanthropist. How much of that $100 billion is new money? Where is the name of the unheard of billionaire, or plain vanilla millionaire?

Foundations through which Buffett and friends give accounted for only 14 percent ($41 billion) of philanthropy during 2010, according to Giving USA. It’s dwarfed by the $234 billion (81 percent) given by individuals outright or through bequests, not through a foundation. So at some point in the future, approximately one-third of what is raised by the nonprofit sector in one year – pegged by Giving USA as $290.89 billion – might be turned over to philanthropy. Where’s Samuel Beckett when you really need him? Maybe they should design a pledge pin, making it more of a secret society.

The super rich are not regular people and shouldn’t be treated that way. Their donations are welcome and badly needed. Hundreds of billions of dollars are already locked away in foundation vaults, the same vaults to which this new cash would be targeted. Bill and Warren’s call should be two-fold: Give more and pay it out now.

Meanwhile, the boys made their report to the president. If this chief executive claims to be a friend of philanthropy, the sector could use fewer pals. The president has put on the table reducing the tax incentive to give. Also on the table are cuts to entitlement programs. Those services are going to be pushed off on the charitable sector at a time when Americans are strapped for cash.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, last year roughly $50 million was spent by for-profits and nonprofits lobbying elected and appointed officials. What exactly has been received for that access?

The sector needs to rethink how it is portraying itself to the general public and also how it interacts with elected officials. This sector has a lot of muscle and should start flexing it. NPT