40 of U.S. ultra-rich pledge to give half of assets to charity
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By Brandon Bailey
San Jose Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. - In a highly unusual joint statement, 40 of the nation's wealthiest individuals - including Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas - said Wednesday they will give at least half their assets to charity.
Based on estimates of the participants' wealth, the amount ultimately committed to philanthropy could be at least $120 billion, equivalent to more than a third of all charitable giving in the United States last year. The public commitment came in response to a challenge by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, which one former adviser called a "game-changing" effort to spur more charitable giving by the nation's ultra-rich. Some experts said the pledges' impact is difficult to gauge, since many of the participants already have indicated they planned to give away most of their wealth. But others said the sheer public nature of the announcement represents a powerful commitment that will undoubtedly inspire others.
"Warren Buffett personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be 'setting an example' and 'influencing others' to give," said Ellison, the world's sixth richest man, in a brief statement made public Wednesday. "I hope he's right."
Other wealthy participants described their views on philanthropy in letters posted on a website (www.givingpledge.org) established by Buffett and the Gateses.
"There's an old saying about farmers putting back into the ground via fertilizer what they take out. So it is with money. The larger the estate, the more important it is to revitalize the soil," wrote Lorry Lokey, an Atherton billionaire who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Santa Clara University, Mills College, the University of Oregon and several other schools and hospitals.
The roster of names released Wednesday includes Silicon Valley notables such as venture capitalist John Doerr, former Cisco Systems CEO John Morgridge, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and former eBay president Jeff Skoll. Also signing were Golden West Financial co-founders Herb and Marion Sandler of Lafayette.
Absent from the list were several other tech industry figures who were ranked by Forbes magazine last year as among the 50 wealthiest individuals in the United States, including Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
Since launching their effort earlier this year, Buffett and Gates have said they plan to approach as many of America's roughly 400 billionaires as they can. Buffett reported that some weren't interested, while others declined to publicize their giving. He added in a statement: "We've really just started, but already we've had a terrific response." The pledge does not represent a legal commitment and does not set any conditions on how the donors distribute their money - or how soon. But some experts said the impact may be significant.
"I think there's going to be an immediate expectation for other billionaires to join them," said Trevor Neilson of the Global Philanthropy Group, which advises wealthy individuals on giving away money. Neilson, who previously worked for the Gates Foundation, called the announcement "a game-changer in the world of philanthropy."
Others were more restrained. "It's important, and it's a good thing. But I think some may be overstating the impact it will have," said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
"It's not going to bring an enormous influx of cash at one time," he noted. "This is going to play out over a long period."
Ellison, whose fortune is estimated at $28 billion, made headlines in 2006 when he revoked a $115 million pledge to Harvard, expressing dismay over the ouster of then-president Lawrence Summers. But he later said he gave a similar amount to medical research.
"Many years ago, I put virtually all of my assets into a trust with the intent of giving away at least 95 percent of my wealth to charitable causes," Ellison said in the note released Wednesday. "I have already given hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research and education, and I will give billions more over time."
Those sentiments were applauded by Emmett Carson, CEO of the nonprofit Silicon Valley Community Foundation, who added that philanthropy is not just for the extraordinarily rich.
"Philanthropy is something everybody can engage in, whether it's making a small contribution to a Boys and Girls Club when somebody knocks on your door, or attending a fundraising chicken dinner," he said.
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