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Can Warren Buffett and Bill Gates save the world?

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"We're hoping that America, which is already the most generous society on earth, becomes even more generous over time," said Mr. Buffett in a conference call with reporters in August. "And the norm in this society, probably kicked off to a significant extent by Rockefeller and Carnegie, has moved toward more generosity, up and down, by the rich, the poor, and the in between."

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Consciously placing their efforts within this peculiarly American tradition of wealth redistribution, Buffett and Mr. Gates could very well revolutionize the intricate and complex world of global philanthropy – begun, in many ways, by those early 20th-century business behemoths. It could help infuse billions more into a worldwide charitable ecosystem in which thousands of charities and nongovernmental organizations scramble for the funds they need to do their work.

So far, both Buffett and Gates have backed their bullhorns with their own billions. Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway, the Nebraska holdings conglomerate, has pledged to give away 99 percent of his current $45 billion fortune (much of it to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and the Gateses have pledged to donate the "vast majority" of their $54 billion net worth.

In 1998, Ted Turner, who has signed the Giving Pledge, had already given a $1 billion gift to establish the United Nations Foundation, a private charity devoted to supporting United Nations causes and activities, like the current effort to vaccinate children in Nigeria.

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