In committing to give away more than 99 per cent of his wealth, U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett challenged the world’s wealthiest people to make a greater commitment to philanthropy. This month, his peer pressure bore fruit, as 40 American billionaires signed the Giving Pledge to donate at least half of their wealth to charity.
The infusion of hundreds of billions of dollars into the fight against diseases, malnutrition, poverty and other needs will serve as a tipping point in these struggles. The value of the donations can’t be measured in dollars, but rather in lives saved and changed. Moreover, beyond the impact of these donations, the power of the example must be recognized.
Buffett leveraged his own commitment to pressure others to follow his lead. While Judaism advocates for anonymous donations, we also realize that charity is peer-driven. Had Buffett followed the Rambam’s principle of giving anonymously – assuming for a moment that one could silently slip $60 billion into the pocket of a handful of charities – he would have forfeited the leverage of his donation and been unable to pressure other billionaires into giving. I’ve often had students question donor walls in schools or naming rights for a new building. While we value anonymous giving, we must also realize that honouring those who give encourages greater philanthropy.
As remarkable as it may be for Buffett to give away 99 per cent of his wealth, he acknowledges that doing so will not have any impact on his or his children’s standard of living. They will continue to live blessed lives cushioned by wealth. A UJA fundraiser once told me that he considers small donations, made by youth, students and those with fewer financial resources, to be “meaningful donations.” While donations in increments of $18 may not build buildings, they do build a base of committed supporters.
It’s said that 80 per cent of charity comes from 20 per cent of donors. While fiscally it would be prudent for charities to focus their fundraising efforts on the small cadre of big donors, doing so weakens the overarching mission of the charity. Small donors serve as evangelists for a cause. They devote their time to volunteer, they carry the message of the charity to their friends and relatives, and cultivating an ongoing relationship with a small donor may one day pay dividends with a larger commitment.
Moreover, for Jewish charities, small donations are a form of affiliation. Even if a synagogue were underwritten by a mega-donor or if day school tuition were subsidized by a philanthropic fund, membership dues and tuition fees would still serve as an important form of relationship building between the family and the institution. Every $18 donation I make connects me to the mission of the charity and its community of supporters.
Especially during uncertain economic times, our community must seek out small, meaningful donations. Allow me to cite one successful example. The Jim Joseph Foundation recently partnered with Mechon Hadar, a study institute in New York City. A $1-million Jim Joseph grant will match every new donation to Mechon Hadar dollar for dollar. Through the program, small donors feel that they’re getting more boom for their 18 bucks, Mechon Hadar is building a database of supporters they can turn to year after year, and the Jim Joseph Foundation is not only offering the charity an infusion of cash, but helping to build an infrastructure of supporters. In the long run, making an investment to court small donors and building lifelong donor-charity relationships will serve the charity, the donor and our community.
While Buffett should be applauded for his positive example to pressure 40 billionaires to give away their fortunes, we must continue to value $18 donations alongside $18-billion dollar commitments.