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Zuckerberg, Gates, Buffett and the triumph of competitive philanthropy

Clockwise, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett. (AP)

When Warren Buffett and Bill Gates launched their “Giving Pledge” four years ago, a campaign to enlist their fellow billionaires to give away at least 50 percent of their wealth, the vast majority of those who signed up said they already were giving away plenty. But they went along with the highly publicized pledges anyway, some because they thought it would encourage other billionaires and others, as Oracle founder Larry Ellison remarked, because Buffett and Gates had asked.

“Many years ago,” Ellison wrote in his pledge letter, I put virtually all of my assets into a trust with the intent of giving away at least 95% of my wealth to charitable causes …. Until now I have done this giving quietly — because I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter. So why am I going public now? Warren Buffet personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be ‘setting an example’ and ‘influencing others’ to give. I hope he’s right.”

He probably was right. Witness Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement Tuesday, on the occasion of the birth of a daughter, that he would give away 99 percent of his Facebook stock, worth $45 billion. Plus, there are now about 138 billionaires listed on at the Gates/Buffett website

[Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan to give away 99 percent of their Facebook stock, worth $45 billion]

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife celebrated the birth of their daughter by pledging 99 percent of their Facebook shares to a new charity. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Uncredited/Reuters)

Zuckerberg was one of the original pledgers to the Gates/Buffett project, promising $35.3 billion. And while Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, made their announcement Tuesday upping the ante, they had already sent another pledge letter, dated Nov., 9 on the givingpledge website.

What Gates and Buffett appear to have created, with their project, is a philanthropic competition of sorts.

“Brilliant!!!” wrote one of the givers, real estate titan Sylvan Adams. “….The Giving Pledge is inspiring successful men and women to engage in what I would call ‘competitive’ philanthropy. Directing the same competitive instincts that these driven people employed to achieve the pinnacle of financial and social success, the Giving Pledge is encouraging us to outdo one another in giving our wealth away.”

Naturally, few of those who have pledged through the Gates/Buffett program say they are doing it for competitive reasons.

But among the givers are some of the most fiercely competitive wealth accumulators in the world, among them Michael Milken, Elon Musk, Michael Bloomberg, T. Boone Pickens, Ted Turner and now, of course, Zuckerberg and  Chan. How embarrassing not to keep up. How difficult to say no to a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet when the call comes.

“I’ve gotten a lot of yeses when I’ve called people,” Buffett told Charlie Rose in an interview. “But I’ve gotten a lot of nos, too. And I am tempted, because I’ve been calling people with a billion dollars or more, I’ve been tempted to think that if they can’t sign up for 50 percent, maybe I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million. Because apparently there’s a lot of people that don’t really know how to do it.”

The mix of competitiveness, vast money, ego, tax advantage, passion for a cause and the quest for a legacy beyond a pile of “stuff,” as Virgin’s Richard Branson put it, is a powerful cocktail.

It would take some time to count up the number of buildings and wings of buildings named after those on the Gates/Buffett roster. For starters, thanks to the Carlyle Group’s David M. Rubenstein, there’s the David M. Rubenstein Child Health Building at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center (near the Charlotte Bloomberg Children’s Center), the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University, the David M. Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago, scheduled for completion in 2018, the David M. Rubenstein Leadership Hall at the Fred W. Smith National Library, the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center and the upcoming Rubenstein Commons at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

The family and ancestors of David Sainsbury, a Gates/Buffett pledger, are among other things famous for the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts, the Sainsbury Laboratory, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, the Sainsbury Library at Oxford, and the Sainsbury African Galleries.

As Bloomberg pointed out in his giving letter, giving “allows you to leave a legacy that many others will remember. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Duke — we remember them more for the long-term effects of their philanthropy than for the companies they founded, or for their descendants.”

That list is a reminder of donors past and of the “Gospel of Wealth” propounded in 1889 by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who condemned “the man who dies leaving behind many millions of available wealth” and said that he who dies rich, “dies disgraced.”

Carnegie wrote that giving away money “is destined to some day solve the problem of the rich and the poor, and to bring ‘peace on earth, among men good will.'”

Today’s givers are more realistic. And in fairness, to hear them tell their stories, it’s not about competitive giving but giving back. It’s about gratitude and not a little bit of guilt, or perhaps humility, about what Buffett calls the “distribution of long straws,” which he wrote, “is wildly capricious.”

Buffett talks about winning the “ovarian lottery” in his pledge letter. “My wealth has come from a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest …. My being male and white also removed huge obstacles the majority of Americans then faced. ….I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions.”

Others seem to have had epiphanies. Branson reports in his pledge letter that “early on I realised that personal ‘stuff’ really didn’t matter.” He and his wife “lived on a houseboat and one day it sank. We realised that we missed nothing except our treasured photo albums.”

Still others seem determined to protect their children from the perils of vast unearned wealth through inheritance. “I’m not a big fan of inherited wealth,” wrote T. Boone Pickens in his letter. “It generally does more harm than good.”

“I’ve never been a great believer in inherited wealth,” agreed Michael Ashcroft (Lord Ashcroft) in his letter.

“My choice,” said Manoj Bhargava, a serial entrepreneur originally from India who created the 5-Hour Energy Brand, “was to ruin my son’s life by giving him money or giving 90+% to charity. Not much of a choice.”

“Long term,” Bloomberg said of his children, “they will benefit more from your philanthropy than from your will.”