Should the Rich Give More? Some Already Do – And You Can Too

Rich people account for the vast majority of all charitable giving, right?

In absolute terms, yes. In proportion to their share of the world’s wealth, not so much. What’s going on?

Why Don’t the Rich Give More?

The rich aren’t uniformly stingy. According to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, women of all social classes are more likely to give to charity than men.

Unfortunately, men own more. The disparity is particularly pronounced at the top of the heap: According to Forbes’ list of the richest women in the world, 2016’s top lady didn’t even make the global top 10—the nonagenarian owner of French beauty brand L’Oreal was number 11, behind Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and other Martians.

In a sobering 2013 analysis, The Atlantic highlighted three reasons for the uber-wealthy’s reluctance:

  • Self-interest. Very wealthy people, especially the self-made, tend to be self-interested. That’s no accident: There’s a close correlation between material success and self-interested behavior. But it’s certainly not a favorable precondition for generosity.
  • Social isolation. The wealthy tend to live among one another, in homogeneous neighborhoods somewhat (or very much) removed from the daily struggles of the less fortunate. When you don’t have to see how the other half lives, you’re less inclined to sympathize with them.
  • Retained biases. Many wealthy philanthropists give to pet causes—political groups, arts organizations, their alma maters. These recipients may all be worthy, but it’s questionable whether they’re positioned to do the greatest possible good, at least in terms of alleviating violence, material suffering and other impediments to dignified living.

Bucking the Trend: Rich People Who (More Than) Pull Their Weight

Scanning the headlines, it can seem like a disproportionately small crew of ultra-wealthy donors are responsible for the vast majority of big-ticket contributions to charities and foundations.

Statistically, that’s not exactly correct. But it is certainly true that the mega-rich—already an exclusive club, by definition—fall into two camps: givers and non-givers.

Some givers are of relatively modest means, at least compared with other jet-setters. Sanjay Shah, the Dubai-based serial entrepreneur who founded Autism Rocks, can’t hold a candle to people like Bill Gates and George Soros. Neither can celebrity philanthropists like Barbra Streisand or Angelina Jolie—people who’ve directly donated millions to worthy causes and indirectly driven millions more simply by putting a recognizable face on the struggles and tribulations of the world’s poor.

Truly world-changing philanthropy rarely originates in a single individual. It requires a special confluence: singular generosity of spirit, vast wealth and the relentless drive to turn plans into action. (Though most members of the ultra-rich have that last one covered.)

These three billionaires have all three preconditions.

  1. Mark Zuckerberg: Zuck and wife Priscilla Chan are among the highest-profile signatories of Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge. They’re set to donate more than 90 percent of their multibillion-dollar fortune to various charitable causes, many of which focus on direct poverty alleviation in the developing world.
  2. Carlos “Slim” Helu: Slim didn’t bite on Buffett’s Giving Pledge, but that hasn’t stopped the Mexican telecom billionaire from donating about $5 billion to charity—with more on the way.
  3. Bill Gates: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done more than just about any other single entity to fight poverty around the world. Gates is another Giving Pledge signatory; most of his nearly $100 billion fortune will end up in the hands of the less fortunate.

What Can You Do?

You’re busy. You’re stressed. You’re not rich.

You can fall back on any number of excuses not to give back. The Life You Can Save, a charity advocate and philanthropy resource, offers 10 arguments people make for passing the buck—and that’s just the start.

Just because you can pass the buck doesn’t mean you should, of course. If you know in your heart of hearts that you can and should do more to help the less fortunate, start by:

  • Finding a worthy cause you can believe in. It’s easier to give when you’re fully committed to a cause. Ask yourself, “What do I value?” Look for issues that play to your sympathies or deeply held beliefs, or that personally affect you or your family. If you want to keep your generosity close to home, scan your community for needs that aren’t being met. Research potential recipients of your generosity to ensure they’re aboveboard. (Charity Navigator is a great resource for this.)
  • Giving what you can, when you can. It should go without saying, but don’t compare yourself to philanthropists with vast resources—or even moderately successful neighbors with more to give. Rather, commit to giving what you can, when you can: That could be $5 per month on a sustaining membership plan, $100 at the end of the year, half your tax refund—whatever you’re comfortable giving.
  • Looking beyond dollars and cents. Money isn’t everything, especially when it comes to philanthropy. Many charities want in-kind donations, even if they seem worthless to you. You’ve surely heard radio commercials asking for old cars; most charities tow for free, and you can take a hefty tax donation at the end of the year. Ditto for old clothes, kitchenware and furniture—whether the recipients of your generosity sell them to raise money or give them directly to those who need them most, they’ll find a happy home and stop taking up room in your basement, attic or storage closet.
  • Contributing your time and talents. Volunteering doesn’t have to be a full-time job. Not even close. Set aside an hour or two per week to give back your time or share your talents. If you run your own business or have bona fide professional credentials, consider pro bono work—it’s a great selling point for paying clients, and it feels even better.

Do you think the rich should give more to charity?