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Bill Gates walks in a room.

Bill Gates carries enormous respect among signers of The Giving Pledge. | AFP via Getty Images

The small messages that Gates sends the signers of the Giving Pledge could have big effects.

Bill Gates has emerged as one of the most important leaders of the coronavirus era, building factories for future vaccines, pushing to expand testing around the world, and occasionally rebuking the president of the United States.

The philanthropist is also doing something else, far more behind the scenes: exploring ways to get his fellow billionaires to give substantially more of their money away right now. That could mean changing the role played by the Giving Pledge, a public declaration crafted just over a decade ago by Gates and Warren Buffett and signed by some of the world’s wealthiest people.

In recent weeks, Gates and his aides have discussed plans to possibly pool voluntary donations from over 200 billionaires and direct the money on their behalf toward the coronavirus crisis, Recode has learned from people familiar with the matter. Another, likelier idea centers on creating a “marketplace” for Giving Pledge signers, and possibly other ultra-rich people who have yet to sign it, to pitch one another on projects.

Either of these moves would be a stark departure from the hands-off role traditionally played by Gates’ team, which has long been reluctant to press too hard on his fellow signers about specific grant recommendations or the speed with which their money is donated.

Now, though, Gates may test that bedrock principle.

A change in messaging for the Giving Pledge

The 209 billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge, which turns 10 years old next month, are estimated to donate at least $500 billion to charity. By taking even a slightly more assertive posture toward other billionaires, Gates and his aides could move a lot of money. It makes whatever social pressure they apply, no matter how small, incredibly important to shaping the philanthropic response to the coronavirus from some of the world’s wealthiest people.

No final decisions have been made, but any of these proposals would be a reimagining of the message of the Giving Pledge in the first place.

Started in 2010 by Gates and Warren Buffett, the pledge has encouraged many of the world’s mega-rich to publicly commit to donating at least half of their net worths to charitable causes, either in their lifetimes or in their wills. But the Giving Pledge is merely a pledge, with no teeth to enforce it or transparency about its success. Independent analyses show that the evidence that it has significantly boosted giving is relatively weak.

Gates’s unwillingness to weigh in on other billionaires’ philanthropy plans has probably contributed to that. But the Giving Pledge’s agnosticism about when the money is given and what causes are supported has been a key part of its message, if not its appeal. For the wealthy who might consider it, signing the pledge is a less inviting proposition if they have to deal with a heavy-handed group of enforcers badgering them to give to this or that.

“I don’t like being preached to. I don’t like to preach to others,” Buffett reportedly said when he reviewed prelaunch messaging for the Giving Pledge, which included an explicit entreaty to “give to inequities.”

And so that became the party line for the Giving Pledge, which has for years fought off strategy proposals that would encourage donors to give to a certain issue or to fund certain collaborations between donors.

Gates’s team has taken pains not to be in the position where they are discouraging Mike Bloomberg from spending less money on combating gun violence and more on drug addiction, or encouraging Mark Zuckerberg to give his fortune away in his will, rather than when he is alive. The Giving Pledge organizers have even been resistant to the idea of sharing with the signers what other billionaires are choosing to fund, which could be a feature of the type of marketplace that Gates’s team has explored building for Covid-19 response.

The Giving Pledge has also lost some luster and momentum in recent years, especially with younger generations of wealth. Only about one in six American billionaires have signed it, and some other rich people have gravitated toward competing charitable commitments. That’s all made it natural to reassess whether the pledge, as it currently is structured, is working as it enters its second decade.

But at the end of its first decade, some critics argue that the Giving Pledge has ushered in more publicity than philanthropy.

The appeal of a marketplace

Today’s billionaires have long struggled with how exactly to give away their fortunes, even if they say they want to. But now that the world is struggling through a pandemic, there is much less leeway for their indecision and preaches for patience. So Gates’s team, which declined to comment on the record for this story, is weighing its options to refresh the Giving Pledge’s programs for this moment.

The Giving Pledge website says explicitly that it “does not solicit support for any specific philanthropic foundation, cause, or organization.” But observers say any of the moves that Gates is considering on Covid-19 would send a clear, implicit message about its recommended priorities.

How signers will react to that message is less clear. Some say Gates’s aides are less likely to pursue a plan that would pool money from Giving Pledge signers, largely because the donors may disagree with one another or with Gates over which particular coronavirus-related causes to support. Foundation officials, sources say, are more likely to pursue the marketplace idea. This would involve building a technology platform that offers ways for billionaires to disclose to one another what they are backing or that connects these billionaires and projects seeking funding.

The new marketplace would be to surface and curate nonprofits on the platform that their fellow billionaires have vetted and backed, as opposed to the barrage of other solicitations coming in on listservs, Excel spreadsheets, and Google Docs. If one billionaire sees that a fellow, respected member of the mega-rich is financing a certain project, they might feel more confident backing it with their own fortune, too. (Gates’s team knows that the success of this depends on the billionaires’ willingness to disclose their gifts to one another on the platform, even though some don’t do that publicly.)

Up until now, that type of collaboration hasn’t necessarily been possible for the signers who might share similar interests. Foundation officials — even Bill and Melinda Gates themselves in recent weeks — have been taking calls from signers on an ad-hoc basis, connecting one billionaire to another.

Now Gates is exploring how to convince other billionaires to donate more for coronavirus, gently putting a small thumb on a scale that he has long been unwilling to touch. To be sure, there is no planned requirement to contribute to any Covid-19 work through a marketplace or even a pooled fund. But Gates’s team knows that because it has never before made a product for Giving Pledge signers focused on a single issue, simply creating the marketplace would send a clear signal.

Gates’s aides remain sensitive to concerns that they are oversteering their donors. But it’s an evolution in the Giving Pledge that they feel meets the moment.

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