Opinion: Memo to Billionaires—We're Ready for You

Forbes just published their annual list of the “Richest People in America.”What some may not know is that on that roster are 28 American billionaires, including Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates and Michael Bloomberg, who have added their name to The Giving Pledge. As founders and fundraisers for two leading international organizations, we were thrilled to hear that these billionaires were committing to give away a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

But, as business leaders, we had an important follow up question for them: what’s your timeline?

So many of us in the nonprofit space recognize and personally know many of those who’ve made the pledge, and if we didn’t know them, we now want to. One of those names, Jeff Skoll and the Skoll Foundation, was an early investor in both Kiva and Room to Read, and due in large part to their support, our respective organizations have managed to scale faster than we could have ever predicted.


Yet, the more people we reach, the more acutely aware we are of how far we have to go.

Both Room to Readand Kiva have the potential to quintuple in size over the next five years, but we need the capital to get us there.

We need billionaire buy-in…and we need it now.

It’s no secret that the wealthiest 1% of the world’s households claim nearly 40% of the planet’s wealth and as the “pledge” initiator Warren Buffet points out, that distribution is based largely and in some ways entirely on “the ovarian lottery.” In other words, any advantage we have enjoyed in our lives started with the simple fact that we were born into a family that valued education and a society that was able to provide it.

With 776 million illiterate adults in the world, and nearly three billion people that lack access to basic financial services, staring down global poverty can feel a little like standing at the base of Mt. Everest.

But there is some good news.

The same multipliers that make the world’s illiteracy and poverty rates so high are also the keys to their eradication. Both Kiva and Room to Read have watched as our programs have touched millions of lives through the ripple effect that education and access to financial services have on entire communities.

We have seen young women supported by Room to Read’s Girls’ Education programgrow up to become educated, empowered mothers who prioritize education for their own children, and serve as role models for all girls in their communities. We’ve also watched as entrepreneurs from Uganda to Cambodia get a chance to improve their lives thanks to a few hundred dollars in loan from a Kiva lender – creating jobs along the way for friends and neighbors. There are many stories of those who have received support from our organizations that have gone on to become change-makers in their own right.

"Every year that the world’s wealth sits in various bank accounts is a year millions more families live in poverty." -Founders & Fund Raisers, Matt Flannery & John Wood

In his letter explaining his reasons for initiating the pledge, Warren Buffet expressed his wish that all of his wealth be “spent on current needs.” We couldn’t agree more. All it takes is one billionaire to commit one fraction of their net worth to scale on-the-ground efforts that are already empowering millions of people to lift themselves out of poverty. We encourage America’s billionaires to think beyond the traditional models of charitable giving and steer more of their investments toward the fleet-of-foot social entrepreneurs that can deploy capital efficiently and effectively, and with measurable results.

Every year that the world’s wealth sits in various bank accounts is a year millions more families live in poverty.

Last week, not only did many of these billionaires in town for the annual Clinton Global Initiativebut countless more companies and wealthy individuals who did not sign the pledge are attending to shake hands, network and say they want to make a difference and leave their legacy of a better world. Let’s not make it all talk and instead make it all action. We don’t have the time to wait another generation for change to happen.

The time for change is now.

Matt Flannery is the co-founder and CEO of Kiva, the world's first personal micro-lending web site whose mission is to connect people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty. www.kiva.org

John Wood is author of “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” and founder and board chair of Room to Read, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to improving literacy and gender equality in education for children in the developing world. www.roomtoread.org