Anyone else keen on signing up this Giving Pledge too?
U.S. Superrich Vow to Share Wealth
By SHELLY BANJO And ROBERT A. GUTH
Billionaire Oracle Corp. founder Larry Ellison will join film director George Lucas and 38 other mega-wealthy people in following a call by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to pledge to give the majority of their riches to charity.
On Wednesday, Mr. Buffett announced that 40 of America's wealthiest individuals and families, from former Citigroup Inc. leaderSandy Weill to hotel mogul Barron Hilton, have signed the "Giving Pledge."
Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates in June had asked the individuals and families to publicly commit to give away at least half of their wealth within their lifetimes or after their deaths.
The pledge stemmed from a series of dinners the two men held for the nation's billionaires over the past year to discuss the effects of the recession on philanthropy.
The push by Mr. Buffett and Mr. and Ms. Gates is publicizing what had been a private matter for many wealthy people. Many of those who joined the pledge already had intended to give away much of their money.
The effort comes during the second consecutive year in which philanthropy experienced its deepest decline ever recorded by the Giving USA Foundation, which has tracked annual giving since 1956.
Donations fell 3.6% to $303.8 billion last year, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to Giving USA. In 2008, charitable giving fell 2%.
In an interview, Mr. Buffett said that while the pledge push might produce a short-term boost in giving, the main goal is to set an example over the long term for others to get involved in philanthropy.
"The behavior of those before does affect what happens with those after, particularly if those people are somewhat admired in society," Mr. Buffett said. "If Carnegie and Rockefeller hadn't done what they'd done, there'd be less philanthropy in the United States today."
Mr. Buffett said he and Mr. Gates in coming months will meet with wealthy individuals in China and India to talk about the pledge in the hopes of adding more names from outside the U.S.
Some signatories on the list Wednesday came as a surprise. Mr. Ellison, the software mogul, is among those who had been involved in philanthropy but hadn't stated their intentions so publicly.
"Until now, I have done this giving quietly—because I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter," Mr. Ellison wrote in a public letter in response to a call from Mr. Buffett to joint the group.
The letter was posted on the Giving Pledge website, set up to display the billionaires' commitments.
Mr. Ellison said he has put virtually all his assets into a trust with the intention of giving away at least 95% to charitable causes and has already given hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research and education.
"So why am I going public now? Warren Buffett personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be 'setting an example' and 'influencing others' to give," Mr. Ellison wrote.
"I hope he's right," he added.
Mr. Lucas, creator of the "Star Wars" franchise, said he was "dedicating the majority of my wealth to improving education" in a pledge letter on the Giving Pledge website. "It is the key to the survival of the human race," he wrote.
In an interview, Tom Steyer, founder of hedge fund Farallon Capital Management LLC in San Francisco, said he and his wife had planned to give away their wealth but decided to go public after Mr. Buffett called.
Mr. Steyer made the pledge to support what he sees as an effort by Mr. Buffett to show how those who profit from capitalism can help improve society.
"We want him to succeed in reshaping the way people think about the private enterprise system," Mr. Steyer said.
Other billionaires on the list, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, had previously stated their plans to give away the majority of their wealth but said calling attention to their plans will encourage others to follow suit.
On a conference call with media, Messrs. Buffett and Bloomberg said that tax deductions weren't a main motivator for people to join the pledge.
Still, for a donor in the 35% income tax bracket, the highest U.S. bracket, the effective cost of a $100 donation while alive can be $65, subject to some limitations.
Philanthropists who sign the pledge will be invited by Messrs. Gates and Buffett to attend three or four dinners this fall, Mr. Buffett said.
The dinners will culminate with a daylong meeting where donors can swap project ideas and advice, as well as discuss challenges such as how to draw children into giving.
The group won't monitor whether the signatories meet their pledge commitments.
"I think the chances of there being any significant slippage of that are virtually nil," Mr. Buffett said. "When people make a pledge like this I think if anything their commitment becomes stronger over time."
Mr. Buffett said he and Mr. Gates and Ms. Gates called between 70 and 80 people based, in part, on their record of philanthropy.
He said he was able to persuade two individuals to expand their giving, while a couple was convinced by their children to increase their giving.
The big question is whether the group can find new donors in the months ahead, especially in an uncertain economy.
While America's rich have recovered somewhat from the recession, their spending and investing have slowed because of the volatile stock markets, rising taxes for top earners and economic uncertainty overseas.—Robert Frank contributed to this article.