Where the Billionaires Behind the “Giving Pledge” Actually Donate Their Money

Morehouse College benefactor Robert F. Smith, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are all members

May 21, 2019 7:43 am
Robert F. Smith paid off the student loans of all the Morehouse College grads. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
Robert F. Smith paid off the student loans of all the Morehouse College grads. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
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Billionaire Robert F. Smith shocked the world on Sunday when he told the students of Morehouse College that he was paying off their student loans through grants that totaled about $40 million, a decision that confirms Smith’s dedication to the Giving Pledge he signed in 2017.

The Pledge is a call to action that unites some of the world’s wealthiest philanthropists (Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett were founding members) under a common mission: to give the majority of their wealth to charitable causes. It was instituted in 2010, when 40 of the country’s wealthiest citizens signed up.

“The Giving Pledge is a simple concept,” its website reads, “an open invitation for billionaires, or those who would be if not for their giving, to publicly dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. And it is inspired by the example set by millions of people at all income levels who give generously — and often at great personal sacrifice — to make the world better. Envisioned as a multi-generational effort, the Giving Pledge aims over time to help shift the social norms of philanthropy toward giving more, giving sooner, and giving smarter.”

When Smith decided to sign up, he wrote his letter, like all members do, explaining what drove him to philanthropy: “…the promise of utilizing brainpower to move individuals, families and even entire communities from poverty to prosperity within one generation has never been more possible than at this moment in time,” he wrote. “But potential is no guarantee of progress. We will only grasp the staggering potential of our time if we create onramps that empower ALL people to participate, regardless of background, country of origin, religious practice, gender, or color of skin.”

Smith went on to invest half of his net worth to causes that support equality for African Americans, “as well as causes that cultivate ecological protection to ensure a livable planet for future generations.”

There are nearly 200 pledgers who have promised to share the wealth, so to speak. Inspired by Smith’s ability to make good on his promise, we rounded up 10 more Giving Pledges complete with each giver’s reasons for signing and who they’ve decided to focus their efforts on.

George Lucas and Mellody Hobson

“When I was in high school, I felt like I was in a vacuum, biding time,” Lucas wrote in his pledge, dated July 16, 2010. “I was curious, but bored. It was not an atmosphere conducive to learning.”

Lucas said that he’s fortunate he was able to find his voice on his own as a child but recognizes that many students, bogged down by the pressures of a system that lacks the resources to reach each and every one of them, might not be able to find theirs on their own. While acknowledging the financial position he’s in now, Lucas wrote that aiding the American education system to “promote active, life-long learning,” is his passion. To fulfill his pledge, Lucas created the George Lucas Educational Foundation for teachers to share their innovations with one another for the betterment of every student through “cooperative and project learning, mentorship, parental involvement, and technological advances.”

Founded in 1991, the GLEF’s mission is “to transform K-12 education so that all students can acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to thrive in their studies, careers, and adult lives,” according to its website, Edutopia.com.

The foundation was the beneficiary of Lucas’ 2012 sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, which went for a reported $4.05 billion — most of which was then invested into to the director’s foundation.

“I am dedicating the majority of my wealth to improving education,” Lucas wrote in his pledge. “It is the key to the survival of the human race.”

Marc and Lynne Benioff
Marc and Lynne Benioff attend the Sean Penn & Friends HELP HAITI HOME Gala. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/ Getty)
Alberto E. Rodriguez

Marc and Lynne Benioff

Benioff is the founder, chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce, an enterprise cloud computing company. He’s also a billionaire who signed over the majority of his estimated $6.5 billion to philanthropy via the pledge he took in June of 2016.

“We believe that in order for our communities to thrive, it’s imperative that all children have access to world-class healthcare and education systems,” the Benioffs wrote in their commitment to giving. “Our country is experiencing growing income inequality — disproportionately affecting the outcomes of our nation’s youth. These are the issues that motivate us to fund high-impact projects that help advance the health and education of our nation’s children.”

Together, the couple donated $250 million to build UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in both San Francisco and Oakland and another $14 million was given on behalf of Salesforce to the San Francisco Unified School District in order to advance STEM education.

“By joining the Giving Pledge,” the couple wrote, “we reaffirm our commitment to the health and education of our children, pledging to dedicate the majority of our wealth to philanthropy.”

Sara Blakely

The queen of Spanx, Sara Blakely, the youngest woman in the world to make $1 billion on her own, pledged to give away most of her wealth while acknowledging that she was starting well behind some of the powerhouse names near hers on the Giving Pledge’s illustrious list.

“Many of the pledgers are farther down the road on their journey of giving back, and I look forward to learning from, and collaborating with them,” Blakely wrote in her 2013 pledge “I am committed to the belief that we would all be in a much better place if half the human race (women) were empowered to prosper, invent, be educated, start their own businesses, run for office — essentially be given the chance to soar!”

Blakely wrote of The philanthropic arm of her company, Leg-UP, has been involved in building homes for impoverished families, sending women to college, funding entrepreneurial programs in girls’ schools and even made a $1 million donation to Oprah’s Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa. The mogul has also donated $100,000 to The Empowerment Plan, a humanitarian campaign based in Detroit that centers around creating jobs for homeless women.

“I pledge to invest in women because I believe it offers one of the greatest returns on investment,” Blakely wrote. “While many of the world’s natural resources are being depleted, one is waiting to be unleashed — women.”

Arthur Blank

Before any Atlanta Falcons haters roll their eyes — consider the team’s owner’s vast philanthropic efforts. Blank, who also co-founded The Home Depot, decided to dedicate the bulk of his wealth, estimated at just under $5 billion, in 2012 to uplifting children.

Blank and his family established and successfully ran Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation “with the goal of sharing our blessings by giving back to the communities that made our good fortune possible,” some 18 years before he wrote his pledge. That foundation gave more than $250 million to charitable causes as of the writing of his pledge, “ranging from education to arts and the environment.”

And when he decided to sign up for more — around the time of his 70th birthday — Blank wrote that he recognized disparities in America that were more apparent than at any other time in his life.

“I am more committed than ever to making a difference through philanthropy,” he wrote. “The needs in our society are more profound than at any point in my lifetime. The gap between rich and poor in America is growing. Philanthropy alone cannot repair all of the social injustice in our county or the world. It can, however, inspire good will, spark innovation and provide thought leadership.”

Blank’s philanthropic efforts have so far benefitted the fight against childhood obesity in Georgia by building walkways and parks, addressed childhood early education issues by instituting testing reform efforts and granted children access to the arts despite any potential economic hurdles.

“I am honored to join those who have gone before me in signing this Giving Pledge,” Blank wrote.

Dagmar Dolby
Dagmar Dolby attends the ceremony honoring Ray Dolby posthumously with a Star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Michael Tran/ FilmMagic)

Dagmar Dolby

German native and widow to surround sound pioneer Ray Dolby, Dagmar Dolby has made a name for herself through giving.

“I am delighted to confirm my plans to devote the major part of my estate to charitable causes,” Dolby wrote in her 2017 pledge letter. “This is a decision my late husband… and I made many years ago, and will enable our sons, Tom and David, and their families to carry on these efforts to improve our communities.”

Through their already-established Ray and Dagmar Family Fund, the Dolby’s have supported reproductive rights, stem cell research and brain health research, with a focus on mood disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

Dolby wrote that she and her family believe that “contributing to a decent life for those less fortunate whether at the beginning or the end of their lives is a great privilege,” and in feeling this way, she expanded her charitable reach to include vulnerable children. Dolby’s pledge vowed to help children have access to healthcare and “proper educational opportunities at all levels.

The pledge letter also highlights a dedication to advocating for the equal opportunities and rights of women and girls, in particular, which includes access to “full reproductive freedom through education, advocacy, and access to services.”

The Dolby family’s existing fund also includes the Ray Dolby Brain Health Center, which is working towards eradicating Alzheimer’s and “lifting the veil” of stigma around mental illness.

“I am happy to join this group who is pledging to share their fortunate circumstances in many inspiring ways,” Dolby wrote.

Liz and Eric Lefkofsky

The Lefkofskys are no strangers to philanthropy. Having amassed the bulk of their wealth through the many tech companies Eric has cofounded, like Groupon, the couple long ago decided that they wanted to give back and started the Lefkofsky Family Foundation in 2006; a multi-tiered organization dedicated to serving in the areas of education, medicine, human rights, arts and culture.

The foundation’s purpose is to “advance high-impact initiatives that enhance the quality of human life in the communities we serve,” the family’s site reads. “To achieve this mission, the Foundation strives to: ensure access to quality education with a deep focus on the middle grades, improve fundamental human rights for women, girls and underserved communities, propel innovative medical research and expand cultural initiatives.”

Through their foundation, the Lefkofskys help fund organizations like Teach for America, the American Civil Liberties Union, Everytown for Gun Safety, the American Brain Tumor Association, and a number of hospitals across the country like MD Anderson in Texas. In 2016, the foundation gifted the hospital $785,000 to help fund breast cancer research.

“Today, Liz and I find ourselves in the rare position to be able to help so many people; a position neither of us takes lightly. We recognize that perhaps our greatest accomplishment — with the exception of the kids we raise — will not come from businesses we’ve started, but from the help we provide to people and causes around the world,” Eric Lefkofsky wrote in the couple’s pledge. “So without any hesitation, we humbly sign the Giving Pledge.”

Joe Gebbia
Joe Gebbia speaks on stage during #BoFVOICES. (Stuart C. Wilson/ Getty)
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Joe Gebbia

Now 37, Airbnb co-founder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia is one of the youngest billionaires on this — or any other — list.

“I am keenly aware of the countless privileges in my life,” Gebbia wrote when he signed the pledge in 2016. My parents gave me the incredible gift of supporting any and all of my unconventional interests. When I started Airbnb in my living room eight years ago, I never would’ve imagined that the company would succeed to such an extent that it would eventually give me the ability to write this letter.”

Gebbia wrote that what he’s most grateful for in watching his company grow is seeing how it has helped entrepreneurs thrive when given the opportunity through this unique platform of hosting travelers. His pledge, he wrote, was to help as many people who have ideas see that “they can make things happen,” and “shape the world around them.”

“I want to enable as many people as possible,” Gebbia wrote, “especially in underprivileged communities, to experience this magic firsthand. My philanthropic contributions will aim to build pathways for future creatives and entrepreneurs, no matter what their age, gender, or location, to achieve their dreams.”

In 2014, Gebbia donated $300,000 to the Rhode Island School of Design, his alma mater, to establish scholarships and begin an endowment fund. Last year, Airbnb started its Open Homes initiative to help house displaced families affected by natural disasters and has since opened some 3,500 houses free of charge.

Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa

Zimbabwean billionaires Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa have made education their cause in life and in pledging their wealth after making their money through Strive’s mobile phone network, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe.

The couple are the founders of the Higherlife Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to empowering some of the most vulnerable children in Africa through educational programs like their scholarship fund that, in June of 2018, paid the school fees of some 20,000 students in Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Burundi. The paid also established a $6.4 million fund in 2013 that sends African students to Morehouse College in the United States. The Masiyiwas co-founded the online platform, “Ruzivo Digital Learning,” which provides digital learning opportunities to thousands of students, as well as the “Muzinda Hub,” the fastest-growing tech hub in Sub-Saharan Africa that specializes in tackling unemployment by training thousands of coders.

“In making this pledge, to give not less than 50 percent of the funds we receive from our family assets, through charitable donations and philanthropy; we are fulfilling what the Apostle Paul, said in Acts 20:35, concerning giving,” the couple wrote of their Giving Pledge, ‘I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ’It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

Chairperson and managing director of Biocon Limited, a biotechnology company based in Bangalore, India, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw was dedicating half of her sizable yearly income towards philanthropic causes long before she was asked to sign the Giving Pledge.

“My will reflects this intent very succinctly,” she wrote in her pledge letter, while highlighting her commitment to making a difference in global healthcare initiatives, especially in the developing world.

“I am particularly concerned about the unbearable financial burden that debilitating diseases like cancer impose on patients in poor countries,” Mazumdar-Shaw wrote. “I am also conscious of the fact that two thirds of the world’s population have little or no access to an acceptable quality of healthcare. When they do, the financial challenge pushes them into poverty.”

To help curb this enormous financial disparity, the biotech leader has adopted a number of Primary Health Centers across rural India to transform them into “Telemedicine and technology enabled centres that can bridge the deficit of medical resources.” She has also created the 1,400-bed Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Center to provide affordable care to those in need. And, through her Mazumdar-Shaw Center for Translational Research, doctors and researchers are supported in their efforts to create “personalized and precision medicine that can lower treatment costs while improving outcome.”

“I would like to be remembered as someone who made a difference to global healthcare through affordable innovation,” she wrote.

Hansjörg Wyss

Swiss entrepreneur and businessman Hansjörg Wyss, the founder of Synthes USA, a collection of orthopedic and neurosurgery companies, has dedicated his years of philanthropy to the environment. Through his Wyss Foundation, he has been able to make an impact by supporting “innovative, lasting solutions that improve lives, empower communities and strengthen connections to the land.”

He created the Wyss Foundation in 1998 to help ensure that the iconic Western landscapes of America that he grew to love are protected for everyone to experience and explore. The foundation’s philanthropic funds support conservation efforts as well as educational, economic and social justice programs.

“President Thomas Jefferson reminds us:,” Wyss wrote in his 2013 pledge letter, ‘There is a debt of service due from every man to his country proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him.’ I have been fortunate to benefit from the opportunities endowed by this nation, its land, and our world. I am determined to fill my duty to others so we may always expand the reach of human possibility and compassion.”

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