- Fortune -
Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett are asking the nation's billionaires to pledge to give at least half their net worth to charity, in their lifetimes or at death. If their campaign succeeds, it could change the face of philanthropy.
Just over a year ago, in May 2009, word leaked to the press that the two richest men in America, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, had organized and presided over a confidential dinner meeting of billionaires in New York City. David Rockefeller was said to have been a host, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Oprah Winfrey to have been among those attending, and philanthropy to have been the main subject.
Pushed by the press to explain, Buffett and Gates declined. But that certainly didn't dim the media's interest in reaching for descriptions of the meeting: The Chronicle of Philanthropy called it "unprecedented"; both ABC News and the Houston Chronicle went for "clandestine"; a New York magazine parody gleefully imagined George Soros to have been starstruck in the presence of Oprah. One radio broadcaster painted a dark picture: "Ladies and gentlemen, there's mischief afoot and it does not bode well for the rest of us." No, no, rebutted the former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Patty Stonesifer, who had been at the meeting and had reluctantly emerged to combat the rumors. The event, she told the Seattle Times, was simply a group of friends and colleagues "discussing ideas" about philanthropy.
And so it was. But that discussion -- to be fully described for the first time in this article -- has the potential to dramatically change the philanthropic behavior of Americans, inducing them to step up the amounts they give. With that dinner meeting, Gates and Buffett started what can be called the biggest fundraising drive in history. They'd welcome donors of any kind. But their direct target is billionaires, whom the two men wish to see greatly raise the amounts they give to charities, of any and all kinds. That wish was not mathematically framed at the time of the New York meeting. But as two other U.S. dinners were held (though not leaked), Buffett and Gates and his wife, Melinda, set the goal: They are driving to get the super-rich, starting with the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, to pledge -- literally pledge -- at least 50% of their net worth to charity during their lifetimes or at death.