A Voluntary Wealth Tax

Forgoing 50-100% for a better world

MANY OF AMERICA’S most successful business leaders are voluntarily “taxing”their business incomes and/or estates up to 100 percent to redistribute their wealth for social good. Surprised?

It is not an entirely new idea. One example: Since 1982, Newman’s Own Inc., a natural-food company, has donated 100 percent of its net royalties and profits to Newman’s Own Foundation, which in turn has donated more than $300 million to charities worldwide.

Announced August 4, 2010, the Giving Pledge represents the extraordinary public commitments from more than 40 of America’s business leaders to give away the majority of their personal multibillion dollar wealth to philanthropy. (Americans, not just the “wealthy” ones, lead the world in giving as a percentage of economic output.) Those who have made the pledge include Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, George Lucas, Mark Zuckerberg, Lorry Lokey (who donated the largest academic gift in University of Oregon history), and Ted Turner, and each does so with a letter that is posted online at givingpledge.org.

These thoughtful, heartfelt letters offer an insightful mix of ideas and feelings about topics such as charity versus philanthropy, inherited wealth, stewardship, tips for successful philanthropy, the American dream, success, what society needs most, giving well, and the purpose of money. Some excerpts:

“What single factor most affected my being so successful in business? In a nanosecond the answer came up: Education. And success is not making a million a month or a year. It’s earning enough to live comfortably and being able to finance children’s education.” – Lorry I. Lokey

“We are among the converted, having committed to give all our net worth to philanthropy starting with a grant of $1.3 billion in 2006 to our spenddown Foundation. When you think about it, no other approach seems to make sense. Passing down fortunes from generation to generation can do irreparable harm.” -Herbert and Marion Sandler

“We very much believe that the accumulation of wealth gets us nowhere. Money has the most value when it’s used for others and the greater good, for sustaining and enriching our world.” – Duncan and Nancy MacMillan

“More than 99 percent of my wealth will go to philanthropy during my lifetime or at death. Measured in dollars this commitment is large. In a comparative sense, though, many individuals give more to others every day. . . . Moreover, this pledge does not leave me contributing the most precious asset, which is time. Many people, including — I’m proud to say — my three children, give extensively of their own time and talents to help others. Gifts of this kind often prove far more valuable than money.” -Warren Buffett

“We want to leave our kids a different kind of inheritance, an example of at least trying to lead a worthy life. In that regard, John Gardner long ago counseled us to ‘do’ things as opposed to trying to ‘be’ someone.” -Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor

Reading these letters, I’m inspired with hope for the future. Locally, examples abound of what makes this country great. Eugene is a far richer community from the generosity of countless volunteers, donors, and the philanthropy that springs from successful businesses. All share a common vision: to leave this place a little better than they found it. You can, too. Get out your checkbook. Volunteer. Be creative. Pass it on.