I say billionaire, you say millionaire….

9 August 2010

In June, Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates launched The Giving Pledge, a campaign that asks wealthy individuals in the States to pledge to donate at least half of their wealth to charity. So far 40 billionaires have made the commitment, which adds up to over $130 billion (about £82 billion) in charitable giving.

The 40 billionaires Gates and Buffett have inspired each published a letter of moral commitment with their pledge, giving a variety of personal reasons for their decisions. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, talks about what giving means in terms of future generations: ‘If you want to do something for your children and show how much you love them, the single best thing – by far – is to support organizations that will create a better world for them and their children.’ Media mogul Ted Turner talks about his charitable giving of (already) more than $1.3 billion as one of the best investments he has ever made.

I am a research analyst intern at New Philanthropy Capital this summer, hailing from the other side of the pond. Because the United States always sets the example (I am not biased whatsoever), I began to think about what effect a similar pledge would have in the UK. While researching, I learned a few interesting facts about this lovely country. Besides the fact that elevators are ‘lifts’ and sweatshirts are ‘jumpers,’ millionaires are not really millionaires. The British decided they wanted to add a few extra zeroes to their £ before admitting someone to the billionaires’ club. In the UK, one billion is one million million. In the U.S., one billion is one thousand million. It seems our standards are drastically lower. … Or maybe we just want to feel special. The UK conceded to what is now called the ‘short scale’ measurement in 1974 in line with the U.S., although there are still many people who refer to the ‘long scale’ as correct.

I compared the fortunes of the top 20 wealthiest Americans and top 20 wealthiest Brits. Selections were based on individuals whose main interests and residence were in these respective countries. My rough calculations showed that if the 20 Americans committed to donate half of their wealth to charity, they would give over £129 billion. If the top 20 in the UK did the same, they would give nearly £50 billion—still an immense amount of money.

With Gates and Buffet leading the way in the States, the question which now begs to be asked is who should be spearheading this campaign in the UK?

The Rausings, well known philanthropists, are on the list but are not known for pushing themselves into the limelight. Similarly the Reuben brothers, the aluminium and property magnates are fiercely private.

So maybe it is left up to Sir Richard Branson—a man who is not especially apparent in the charitable world? Never one to shy away from the public eye or a challenge, he seems an obvious choice and could help to get the pledge kick started over here. But will our UK billionaires commit to making such a public statement of their philanthropic intentions as their US counterparts have? That’s a question that remains to be seen.