08.04.10

Behind the Billionaire Pact

Some 40 philanthropists worth a combined $230 billion are publicly pledging to give away their fortunes. Donors talk to Benjamin Sarlin about the secret meeting that started the movement—and the pact’s surprising absences.

Update: George Soros responds to the pact.

The origins of a pledge by Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and 38 other billionaires to donate more than half their wealth to charity began last year in New York, at a clandestine meeting of the mega-rich.

The very existence of such an event, organized by Buffett, Gates, and David Rockefeller and featuring such names as Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner, Oprah Winfrey, and George Soros, touched off a frenzy of speculation in the press when it was revealed almost two weeks after the fact by IrishCentral.com. Pete Peterson, who attended the meeting and has pledged his own fortune to raising awareness of America’s budget deficit, told The Daily Beast that it was there the group planted the seeds of Wednesday’s “ Giving Pledge” announcement.

“Each of us went around the table and talked about our philanthropic experiences and why it was a very important part of our life,” Peterson said. “We reached a very interesting kind of conclusion in that most of the philanthropists there said that they enjoyed giving money away more than they had enjoyed making it, and that’s a pleasurable experience. At the end of that session, we went around the table and asked, given all the problems in this country, how we felt about trying to expand the list of major philanthropists, and there was a unanimity that we ought to do it—if we did it very quietly—which is what happened.”

Two of the meetings’ most famous attendees, Winfrey and Soros, were conspicuously absent from the initial roster of pledges announced this week despite a history of supporting charitable causes. Calls to their representatives for an explanation were not immediately returned. Peterson said he was surprised to see their names missing, given that the two “were very active participants” at the New York gathering.

Gates and Buffett took the lead in persuading others to join their cause, holding subsequent dinners to court donors. In June of this year, they finally unveiled details about the Giving Pledge to Fortune magazine, in effect publicly shaming the super-rich into joining their cause.

In an interview with The Daily Beast last week ahead of the group’s announcement Wednesday, Buffett spoke glowingly of the group he and Gates had assembled.

“They have convictions and they’re backing them up with their money as well as a lot of time and energy,” Buffett said.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Billionaires Who Pledged

The group’s hope is that the initial announcement will go viral within ultra-rich social circles, gathering momentum as more donors pledge their fortune. Undoubtedly it’s an issue that will come up in interviews with many billionaires who didn’t make the cut; already news organizations are compiling lists of the pledge drives’ most glaring absences, which include corporate raider Carl Icahn and hedge-fund manager John Paulson in addition to Winfrey and Soros.

“I regard it as a repayment of a debt to the country that has been so generous to my family and me,” Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein, who signed on to the pledge, said in a statement. “I hope that the attention the pledge receives will encourage all Americans—not just a select few—to consider increasing their own giving to worthy organizations and causes. If that occurs, the pledge will have really achieved its most important aim.”

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.