British billionaires: who could head our A-list of philanthropy? | Matthew Bishop and Michael Green

The Giving Pledge reminds us how Britain lags behind the US in charitable giving. A push by our super-rich could close the gap

The figure is $115bn. That's what the Giving Pledge made by 38 American billionaires on Wednesday could be worth if they fulfil their promise to give at least half their fortunes away. This is serious money and marks another milestone in the resurgence of philanthropy – what we call philanthrocapitalism – over the past decade.

The architects of the Giving Pledge, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and uber-investor Warren Buffett, kickstarted the philanthrocapitalism revolution in 2006 when they made a public commitment to give their fortunes away. Now, through the Giving Pledge, one in 10 of America's 400 billionaires has committed to join them and make philanthropy a vocation.

If these billionaire philanthrocapitalists can follow Gates's example their giving could be world-changing. Through his own philanthropy (and cajoling of governments), Gates has driven a step change in the world's efforts to take on killer diseases in the developing world. As a result of these efforts, annual research spending on malaria has soared from $60m a decade ago to nearly $2bn today, which means that there is a real possibility of preventing the million deaths a year from this disease within the next decade. With their business nous and willingness to support innovative ideas, as well as their money, these philanthrocapitalists could become the world's leading problem-solvers.

Critics have pointed out that many of the names on the list are already veteran philanthropists – like New York mayor and media tycoon Michael Bloomberg or real estate magnate Eli Broad – and may have already planned to give it all away. Yet it is still a big step that they have done so publicly. There were also surprises on the list, particularly Gates's great rival in business Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, who has blown hot and cold about philanthropy in his public statements in the past.

In the past, Gates has always focused on the enjoyment he gets from giving rather than heavy moral arguments to persuade his billionaire peers to join him in stumping up to save lives in Africa or fix America's broken school system. The Giving Pledge marks a change in strategy as he and Buffett turn up the heat on the super-rich to join them in doing good.

Richesse oblige is part of American culture. The peer pressure to give is great (for donors large and small), which is what makes US givers three times as generous as Britons. The Giving Pledge has upped that peer pressure and set an expectation that only serious generosity gets you into the new A-list of philanthropy. More billionaires are expected to sign up in the coming months.

Could a Giving Pledge have the same impact here in Britain?

According to the lastest Forbes magazine listings, Britain is home to 40 billionaires but only one of them, Lord Sainsbury, has given enough away to qualify to sign the Giving Pledge. Others, such as the Duke of Westminster, are prominent supporters of charity but their publicly declared giving is not of a scale to get into the new Buffett and Gates philanthropy elite.

Some of Britain's billionaire donors may protest that they already have plans to give half or more of their fortune away. Perhaps. But that may be the point of the Giving Pledge – putting the question that polite society is reluctant to ask of the rich: exactly how generous are you?

The Charities Aid Foundation has estimated that a similar pledge by Britain's billionaires would release £60bn of new giving. With the government broke, such a surge in generosity by the super-rich may be just what this country needs to finance the "big society".

So who should front up a British Giving Pledge?

Lord Sainsbury is the obvious choice, since he has already got there, but he doesn't have the media pulling power or charisma of Gates or Buffett. There's really only one British billionaire with the profile to carry this off – the media-friendly Sir Richard Branson.

Despite his impressive track record on doing good – from investing in new technology to tackle climate change to trying to stop the war in Iraq by flying Nelson Mandela to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussein to slip away into exile – Branson has not been a big giver of his personal fortune.

What better PR opportunity for Britain's best-loved billionaire to take the lead with a big pledge of his own? Even if he does insist on calling it the Virgin Giving Pledge.


Matthew Bishop and Michael Green

The GuardianTramp

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