Can the Giving Pledge Work Around the World?

The Giving Pledge is self described as “an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or in their will.” It was made public in 2010 by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, and since it’s conception it has garnered 137 members. One of the most recent members to join the pledge is Saudi Arabia’s Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. Last month he announced that he is going to donate his entire $32 billion fortune at an unspecified date.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talala

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talala

Prince Al-Waleed’s involvement in the Giving Pledge marks a relatively new trend in the group, that of wealthy individuals outside the United States joining the movement. Of course there are other foreign members including Sudan’s Mo Ibrahim, Malaysia’s Vincent Tan, and Ukraine’s Victor Pinchuk, but the majority of members so far have been from within the US.

Outreach to foreign billionaires has been a focus of Gates and Buffet in recent years, with frequent trips to India, China, France, and other countries to speak with wealthy foreign leaders, businessmen, and investors about joining. With 1,000+ billionaires in the world, it’s important that they focus their efforts strategically, so their efforts can produce the greatest amount of good. While every country could use more money for their charities humble pocketbooks, not all countries have the same systems in place that the US does in regard to charitable donations.

For example, the US provides tax breaks for charitable contributions and nonprofit groups. Perhaps more important, the US offers support and legal protection for charities with a wide range of views on public policy, religion, animal rights, conservation, and more. There is a reason why Americans donate more to charity than any other country.

The result has been a well-financed and diversified nonprofit sector. Unfortunately, these systems and protections in place in the US are hardly standard issue around the world. So we wonder: can philanthropy, without the same environment, be as effective in other places around the world?

What happens when a nation has a formal state religion, doesn’t approve of freedom of speech, doesn’t believe in gender/marriage equality, or has a corrupt government that provides no transparency or accountability? American nonprofits are able to function not just because they are funded and provide a needed service, they are successful because they exist within a safety net that encourages progress and believes in the power of the few to make great change in the world.

This isn’t to say that generosity isn’t important: it is. But in order for donations to make the most impact on a given nation, that nation needs certain legal, social, and economic systems in place that facilitate the entire process.

What the Giving Pledge is doing is important, and I hope they continue to inspire more to join. As they do, I hope we all focus on encouraging the systemic changes that need to take place in order for these nations to inspire a thriving nonprofit sector of their own that is able to work as effectively and efficiently as possible.