News and analysis
October 15, 2014

A Giving Pledge, Ralph Nader Style

The Giving Pledge, a commitment by the uber-rich to give away at least half their wealth before they die, has attracted 127 pledges that cut across a variety of causes including education, public health, and the environment. Launched by billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, it is the world’s most prominent philanthropic effort.

Now, lawyer, consumer advocate, and five-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader is trying to organize a sort of giving pledge of his own, this one aimed at the policy arena. The concept: Band together super-wealthy Americans with shared birth years from 1924 to 1944 to make major gifts to civic and democratic institutions.

"It is a ripe time: There have never been more billionaires," Mr. Nader said in an interview with The Chronicle. "It gives them a chance to have a collective patriotic legacy, to leave a nonprofit advocacy institution behind for posterity."

Mr. Nader, 80, has plenty of suggestions on where the money should go. In an ad published earlier this month in the Baltimore Sun, he proposed 25 causes that could be funded by birth-year gifts including creating congressional watchdog groups in all members’ districts, promoting faster conversion to renewable energies, and advancing "full Medicare for all."

Together, the donors have the ability to "advance significant, self-renewing, nonprofit, civic institutions to improve the life prospects of our descendants starting right now," the ad states.

According to Mr. Nader, the idea for birth-year gifts was inspired in part by that stalwart giving vehicle—the alumni class gift. He himself has been heavily involved in the Appleseed Network, a justice-focused organization started by members of Harvard Law School’s class of 1958, and the Princeton Project 55, a public-interest effort started by Princeton University’s class of 1955.

Birth-year gifts could not only spur a new level of philanthropy but also represent an opportunity for major donors to focus on justice rather than charity, he said.

"This is philanthropy for justice, not for charity, and a society that has more justice needs less charity," Mr. Nader said. "For example, soup kitchens are charity, and they are important. But a wealthy country like ours should have an economy with enough jobs and a living wage to abolish hunger."

He chose to target his call to donors born from 1924 to 1944 because at those ages people are not "thinking about piling up more money," Mr. Nader said. "They are thinking about their children, their grandchildren, great-grandchildren, posterity, how future Americans will look at them in terms of legacy and historical significance."

The effort will require two categories of leaders, major donors and skilled managers, Mr. Nader says. His dream participants include Warren Buffett, Peter Thiel, and George Soros, among others.

Philanthropy professionals who work with major donors described the idea as noble but expressed doubt that it can gain traction.

Jane Wales, founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum, which seeks to build communities of philanthropists around international causes, called the idea timely.

"I think an increasing number of philanthropists are worried that we may have become so polarized as a nation that we can’t solve large problems together," Ms. Wales says. "The concept of strengthening our democracy and strengthening our civic institutions is very appealing."

Still, by the time they have reached their final decades of life, most philanthropists with significant giving capacity have already established their own infrastructure, she said.

"While I think the broad call for investing in civic and democratic institutions will strike a chord, I expect that philanthropists will probably devise their own strategies for doing so."

Mr. Nader plans to run the ad in other major newspapers in the coming months. He also is working on a direct mail campaign targeting wealthy individuals.

"I am used to ideas taking a while to sink in," he said.

And Mr. Nader said he knows it can be tough to convince rich people in particular to adopt a new idea, "especially one they never thought of."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.