The Giving Pledge Is Just A Glorified Tax Break: Critics

Philanthropists Bill Gates speaks during an interview on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in New York. Gates pitched an optimistic fut
Philanthropists Bill Gates speaks during an interview on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in New York. Gates pitched an optimistic future for the world's poor and sick his annual letter, arguing passionately against three myths he said hurt efforts to bring people out of poverty, save lives and improve living conditions. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

In its four years, the Giving Pledge has managed to recruit more than 120 signatories, but some critics say the initiative has little else to show for itself.

The brainchild of Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, the Giving Pledge encourages the world’s richest people to pledge a majority of their wealth to charity while they’re still living. The goal is for members to have more control over how their money is distributed, and to motivate others to get involved in philanthropy.

But, after four years, some say that the initiative is more self-congratulatory and self-serving than anything else.

One issue a number of critics have raised is that members can simply pledge money to family-run foundations, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported.

The late Robert W. Wilson, a philanthropist who donated $600 million over the course of his lifetime, expressed this concern when Bill Gates approached him about joining the Pledge.

After Wilson committed suicide last year at age 87, BuzzFeed obtained emails exchanged between him and Gates in 2010.

In one email, Wilson wrote that he was adamantly opposed to joining the Pledge because of a "loophole":

Your 'Giving Pledge' has a loophole that renders it practically worthless, namely permitting pledgees to simply name charities in their wills. I have found that most billionaires or near billionaires hate giving large sums of money away while alive and instead set up family-controlled foundations to do it for them after death. And these foundations become, more often than not, bureaucracy-ridden sluggards.

Other detractors have expressed fear that the Giving Pledge would serve as a tax haven for the wealthy, and a way to set up trusts for their children.

"[The Giving Pledge] is terrific as long as we see an increase in philanthropic projects. It has been two years; what are the 10 or 20 major projects that come out of it?" Marc Benioff, the founder of Inc., told the Wall Street Journal in 2012. "This can't just be a bunch of money going into trusts. It could end up being a bunch of air cover for people who don't want to give away their money."

Benioff donated $100 million to a San Francisco children's hospital but wasn’t interested in signing the pledge, according to the Journal.

Critics say part of the problem is the Giving Pledge only publishes members’ statements about why they elected to join -- without tracking or publicly revealing where those members donate or how much they give.

However, the founders say that the Pledge isn’t just about where people donate. Of equal importance is how members encourage one another to come up with innovative ways to change the world.

The Giving Pledge aims to "bring together those committed to this kind of giving to exchange knowledge on how to do this in the best possible way," according to the website.

Some signatories have said the opportunity to exchange ideas is an invaluable resource.

"If I get one idea out of it by joining, that would be enough for me," Manoj Bhargava, founder of the company behind the 5-Hour Energy drink, told the Journal in 2012 after he committed to the Pledge.

But, while sharing ideas may inspire members to give in inventive ways, some experts say that creating such an elite and self-important class of philanthropists may inadvertently make others feel that they need to earn $1 billion in order to make a significant difference.

"As important and well-intentioned as is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation support for the Common Core curriculum, for instance, parents helping their children do their homework could matter just as much or more," Howard Husock wrote in an op-ed for Forbes last November. "The point here is that effective philanthropy need not be mega-philanthropy -- and the Giving Pledge risks sending that message."