Why Billionaires Sign on to Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge

rain of dollarsA total of 127 people have now added their names to the “Giving Pledge” list  started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. It’s no token commitment: The billionaires on this list have agreed to give over half of their wealth to charitable causes. 

Why do they do it? We don’t have to wonder too hard, because each accompanies their pledge with a written statement.

Not surprisingly, many of these statements read like they were written by a marketing person. There’s all the usual language about helping others, giving back, values learned from parents, and so forth.

Still, it’s worth perusing them, to look for clues beyond the obvious. There’s an interesting one right at the top of the list, from Bill and Karen Ackman.

William Ackman’s letter says that he not only gains happiness and optimism from helping others, but that “I am quite sure that I have earned financial returns from giving money away. Not directly by any means, but rather as a result of the people I have met, the ideas I have been exposed to, and the experiences I have had as a result of giving money away. A number of my closest friends, partners, and advisors I met through charitable giving. Their advice, judgment, and partnership have been invaluable in my business and in my life.”

Wow. For anyone who was still thinking about major donors as just regular donors who give a little (okay, a lot) extra, it’s a powerful reminder that truly major giving occupies a whole different universe.

Ackman is talking about up-close, personal contacts with individuals, not just getting a nice thank-you letter and phone call from a development director. I’m willing to bet that many of the people he’s referring to are not the nonprofit staffers themselves and, pardon my cynicism, not the homeless clients, either.

My guess is that he’s talking primarily about fellow people of means with whom he has served on boards, or whom he has met at gala events, conferred with about high-level approaches to problem solving, and so on. And although his letter was one of many on Buffett’s list, Ackman no doubt expresses the (perhaps unspoken) sentiments of others like him.

All of which means that any nonprofit trying to attract the attention of truly major donors needs to give some serious thought to whether it can offer a similar type of return on their investment.