Ms. Madoff and others pushing for change see a growing gap between reputation-burnishing promises of money and distributions to people who need it. The Giving Pledge, which was started by Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates and their friend and collaborator Warren E. Buffett, gave billionaires a space where they could announce their intention to give away half their fortunes or more, often to great acclaim. But it provides no mechanism to monitor or ensure the giving actually happens.
Earlier this year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, as the top philanthropist of 2020 because he committed $10 billion to his Bezos Earth Fund to fight climate change. But he had handed out less than one-tenth of that, $791 million, to working nonprofits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Charitable giving has remained relatively steady for decades, clocking in at roughly 2 percent of disposable income per year, give or take a few tenths of a percent. In 1991, the year that Fidelity began to offer donor-advised funds, just 5 percent of giving went to foundations and DAFs. By 2019, the most recent year available, that figure had risen to 28 percent.
It was January 2020 when that small group gathered at the offices of the nonprofit consulting firm the Bridgespan Group in Manhattan for a wonky brainstorming session about the state of philanthropy. The group included foundation leaders, former congressional staff members, former senior Internal Revenue Service officials and a key constituency in any effort to change how billionaires give away their money: billionaires.
One of the organizers was John D. Arnold. Once a trader at Enron, the Houston energy company that infamously collapsed in 2001, Mr. Arnold later ran his own hedge fund, which made him one of the youngest billionaires in the United States.
Ms. Madoff, another leader of the initiative, has written a book, “Immortality and the Law,” about the growing legal power of dead people in America and has applied her knowledge of estate taxes and inheritance law to the rising field of philanthropy.
The group focused on the fact that most of the laws governing philanthropy were half a century old, dating back to 1969.