Mark Zuckerberg, who made a splash in September when he pledged $100 million to the Newark public schools, was back in the philanthropic news on Thursday, as he and 16 other American billionaires announced they had gotten on board the Giving Pledge platform headed by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.
Giving Pledge comprises, at latest count, 57 of the wealthiest individuals and families in the U.S., who make a commitment to give away the majority of their wealth to charitable causes during their lifetime and after their death. As more people join, a parlor game of sorts has erupted, with speculation about which ultra wealthy Americans will make a pledge next, according to The New York Times.
But some observers in the philanthropy sector have different questions about Giving Pledge. Suzanne Muchin, the founder, and Rachel Bellow, a partner, of the Chicago-based consulting firm ROI (for Return on Inspiration) Ventures LLC, wonder what the organization’s intention is. “If it’s to influence, then presumably we need to look at the radiating impact, not just the influence on billionaires,” Bellow said in a phone interview with AdvisorOne.
Muchin (left) noted that Giving Pledge changes the direction U.S. philanthropy is taking, which is toward the masses, anything from micro-giving to President Obama’s fundraising strategy—“the consumer feeling empowered that they actually can make a difference through small acts,” she said. “Ironically Giving Pledge is in the face of that, saying the momentum is going to come from a few of us giving a lot. Clearly, it’s a both/and situation; it’s not a competitive strategy of what’s the right philanthropic pivot foot.”
Muchin and Bellow want philanthropy to begin to pull at the real underlying notion of sacrifice and service. “That isn’t just about money, but skin in the game,” Bellow said.
The women said that Giving Pledge’s annual meeting (during which all who take the pledge “will come together to share ideas and learn from each other,” according to the organization’s Web site) has the potential to be a leverage point. “That could be the most important thing Giving Pledge does,” Muchin said.
She envisages an annual meeting in which the overarching theme is knowledge transfer. “What do we know that’s proprietary to us that only we could know individually because we have positioned our lives at the intersection of money and meaning?” She said the billionaires must be able to extract the essence of what they and their foundations have figured out through mistakes and lessons learned. Or what they want to figure out, the problem they are trying to solve.”
Alternatively, the annual meeting could be meaningless if it turns into a dog-and-pony show in which the billionaires simply talk about what they and their foundations do. “It has to be about knowledge; it can’t be about cause,” Muchin said. “It has to be about insight, not about information.”
Bellow (left) observed that most all conversations around charitable giving tend to focus the what of philanthropy. “But what’s really interesting is the how of philanthropy, how it works as a mechanism for change. A white space exists that this annual meeting could fill where they become knowledgeable and then evangelistic about the how of philanthropy, of making a difference, having an impact. How does that work? How do you change behaviors in society? How do we get what we’re doing to matter to others who could similarly do it?”
Muchin noted that ROI Ventures has yet to receive any kind of knowledge product—in the form of an e-mail, a video, a tool—that has come out of the Gates Foundation “that has led me to change the way I think about strategy and philanthropy and impact and the radiating impact in context of what they’ve learned as a foundation.”
The Giving Pledge annual meeting could serve another positive purpose, Bellow said.
Participants could collectively construct an agenda for the coming year against which to measure themselves at the next annual meeting. They would pick a topic with the question: What can only we in this room do that others can’t? Then what are the actions that could come out of this room that could be the kind of measured outcomes we could point to and say: because we made this commitment, because we made this pledge, we were able to accomplish x?
Muchin concluded with an observation about Zuckerberg’s pledge. She said the reason it is newsworthy is because of his age. “He represents the doorway to the next generation.”
She said it could be compelling if Giving Pledge billionaires would strive to redefine success in America for 20 and 30 year olds, inspiring a new sense of urgency and accountability, a way of living their lives day today as business people and philanthropists that could change social norms in the U.S.
Read more on Muchin and Bellow’s views in The Growing Social Impact of Philanthropy at AdvisorOne.com.