News and analysis
December 01, 2015

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett Optimistic on Future of Philanthropy

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and other leading philanthropists painted a bright picture of the future as they gathered today at the launch of a museum effort to examine charitable giving in America.

"I am an optimist about the power of philanthropy to reduce inequity," Mr. Gates told a small audience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The Microsoft mogul predicted that the number of billionaires signing the Giving Pledge will continue to grow, fueled in part by maturing philanthropic cultures in China and India.

He also said technological innovations will spark increased giving broadly: "Both in terms of the creativity and the amount of money being raised, we’re still very much in the early days here."

Gates did not discuss his announcement yesterday at the Paris climate-change talks of a new Gates-led private fund to develop clean energy sources. But he said the global battle against malaria and other diseases is going well. "I believe in my lifetime infectious diseases can be eliminated," he said.

Mr. Buffett said he is surprised at the success of the five-year-old Giving Pledge, which has 140 signees. He and Bill and Melinda Gates came up with the idea of rallying billionaires around giving away the bulk of their wealth.

"It’s far exceeded my expectations," Mr. Buffett said. "I thought if we got 50 people, it would be terrific."

Philanthropy on Exhibit

Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett were speaking at a museum symposium to highlight its philanthropy effort. With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a gift from the financier David Rubenstein, the museum is establishing exhibitions, collections, and events on the history and future of American philanthropy. On Giving Tuesday each year, the museum will host a symposium focused on philanthropy’s impact on education, the environment, and civil rights, among other areas.

The museum’s first long-term exhibition will open next year on Giving Tuesday, which is November 29. Some displays have opened as a preview, with artifacts exploring philanthropy today and in the late-19th-century Gilded Age.

Major philanthropists participating in today’s symposium included Mr. Rubenstein, Ms. Gates, and David Rockefeller Jr. A dozen or so other individuals who’ve signed the Giving Pledge attended, including Steve and Jean Case, Ted Turner, and Herbert and Nicole Wertheim.

In a panel discussion, Ms. Gates talked about her early days in philanthropy, when the foundation operated out of small office over a pizza shop. She recalled advice from former President Jimmy Carter: "He said, ‘No matter what program you do or where you do it in the world, you better make sure at the end of the day the community thinks it’s theirs, not yours. Let them own it and put their name on it.’ "

Mr. Rockefeller discussed being in a family in which many members are pursuing individual philanthropic work. He said he and his cousins banned soliciting each other for their causes. "We’ve decided we’d rather be friends than treat each other as objects of philanthropic potential."

Send an email to Drew Lindsay.