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VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations

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Giving Pledge, philanthropy, high-net worth individuals, Bill Gates, billionaires


Nonprofit Administration and Management


This study investigates a discourse about billionaire philanthropy established in letters submitted by 187 of 209 signatories of the Giving Pledge. The philanthropy of the wealthy is gaining increasing public attention and is subject to growing criticism, which demands additional study of how the wealthy collectively explain their generosity. The mixed-method analysis finds a strong emphasis on education and health causes and identifies two distinct and coherent rationales for being generous. The majority of letters express a social–normative rationale, consisting of two prevailing explanations: an expressed gratitude and desire to “give back” (1) and references to family upbringing as a socializing force (2). A minority of letters articulate a personal–consequentialist rationale, highlighting three separate explanations: a large inheritance may harm offspring (1), giving as personal gratification (2), and an acknowledgment of excess wealth with no better use (3). An expressed desire to have impact and make a difference appears in both rationales. The overall dominance of a social–normative rationale projects a discourse emphasizing benevolence as well as a narrative in which billionaires are an exceptionally productive and grateful subset of society. While previous studies have primarily focused on identifying individual psychological motives, this study shows how the Giving Pledge letters reflect a philanthropic discourse among the wealthy going back to Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth.


Original publication information:

Schmitz, H.P., Mitchell, G.E. & McCollim, E.M. (2021). How Billionaires Explain Their Philanthropy: A Mixed-Method Analysis of the Giving Pledge Letters. Voluntas, 32, 512–523.