Seven years ago, Warren Buffett began steadily giving away the bulk of his fortune. Here are 15 facts to help us grasp what that means.
1. In 1997, Warren Buffett told Janet Lowe, the author of Warren Buffett Speaks: Wit and Wisdom From the World's Greatest Investor, the following:
The way I see it is that my money represents an enormous number of claim checks on society. It is like I have these little pieces of paper that I can turn into consumption. If I wanted to, I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life. And the GNP would go up. But the utility of the product would be zilch, and I would be keeping those 10,000 people from doing AIDS research, or teaching, or nursing. I don't do that, though. I don't use very many of those claim checks. There's nothing material I want very much. And I'm going to give virtually all of those claim checks to charity when my wife and I die.
2. Sure enough, less than a decade later in July 2006, Buffett began his quest to ultimately give away 99% of his vast fortune, beginning with a gift of 30,125,000 Class B shares of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) (adjusted for the stock's 50-for-1 split in 2009).
3. Though the number of shares Buffett gives away each year falls by a pre-determined 5%, Buffett knows all-too-well their value should steadily increase over the long term as Berkshire Hathaway stock continues its market-dominating ways.
4. To date, Buffett has given away a total of more than 204.62 million Class B Berkshire shares, currently worth nearly $24 billion based on Berkshire's recent Class B closing price just above $117 per share.
5. That exceeds the current $14.7 billion median market capitalization of all companies comprising the S&P 500 index by more than 60%. Need more perspective? That's also larger than the total market caps of both Corning (NYSE: GLW) and Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ: ATVI), which earlier this week stood tall at $22.2 billion and $19.5 billion, respectively.
6. Buffett's total gifts so far also exceed the 2012 nominal gross domestic product of 86 countries, as reported by the International Monetary Fund last year, including El Salvador, Estonia, Jamaica, Iceland, and Afghanistan.
7. The primary beneficiary of Buffett's giving is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which last month received more than 76% of the total 22,870,529 gifted shares allocated for 2013.
8. In March, Forbes ranked Buffett the fourth-richest person in the world, with a net worth of roughly $53.5 billion, trailing only Carlos Slim at $73 billion, Bill Gates at $67 billion, and Amancio Ortega at $57 billion.
9. Thanks to Berkshire's 31% rise so far this year, however, even after last month's giving, Buffett's remaining 20% stake of the company is currently still worth about $57 billion.
10. Simple arithmetic also tells us if Buffett had chosen not to give away his money in the first place, he would easily be the richest person alive today, with a net worth of roughly $81 billion.
11. In addition to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, four other charitable groups receive annual gifts. These include the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (named for Buffett's first wife), as well as three organizations run by his children in the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the Novo Foundation, and the Sherwood Foundation.
12. Last August, Warren Buffett sent a warm letter to his three children, applauding them for exceeding his high expectations and applying their "considerable brains and energies in order to make the most of the funds from [his] gift." In the letter, Buffett also told them he had decided to double his original pledge for each of their charitable foundations, the effects of which were reflected in this year's gift.
13. On the perfect amount of money to leave his children, Buffett says, "I want to give my kids enough so that they could feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing."
14. Relatedly, Buffett is a firm opponent of repealing the estate tax, which can run upwards of 55% when you include both the federal and state portions. Repealing this tax, Buffett argues, would wrongly pass down the ability to "command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit." Put another way, he compared it to "choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics."
15. Through The Giving Pledge, which he co-founded with Melinda Gates in 2010, Buffett has so far persuaded 114 other wealthy families and individuals to follow his lead by "giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or in their will." Those who have pledged so far include activist investor Bill Ackman, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison, Netflix's Reed Hastings, and noted investor Carl Icahn.
Fool contributor Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Activision Blizzard, Berkshire Hathaway, Corning, and Netflix and owns shares of Activision Blizzard, Berkshire Hathaway, GLW, Microsoft, Netflix, and Oracle.. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.