Pete Peterson: Giving Away a Fortune to Keep the American Dream Alive

Donating personal wealth to keep the American dream alive.

By + More

Peter G. Peterson, a former secretary of Commerce, is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Blackstone Group and chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

America is a trailblazing nation. From the democratic government pioneered by our Founding Fathers in the 18th century to the airplane, Internet, and other revolutionary inventions of the 20th century, our country has a long history of groundbreaking progress.

One uniquely American innovation that has had a profound impact on life around the world is modern philanthropy. Over the years, a number of Americans have amassed tremendous personal fortunes and then given them away to address pressing issues that the public sector either has left unaddressed or was addressing poorly. These philanthropists endowed foundations that have educated millions, improved the lives of billions, and literally changed the course of history. Their giving has led to incredible innovation, from a vaccine for yellow fever to microfinancing that has reduced poverty for millions of people throughout the world to the Green Revolution, which radically decreased famine through high-yield crops.

Of course, our innovative national spirit drives us to improve every aspect of human life, including philanthropy. Bill and Melinda Gates stunned the world when—with many long years ahead of them—they decided to devote the rest of their lives and much of their fortune to the Gates Foundation. Warren Buffett joined them by pledging all of his Berkshire Hathaway stock to charity, and much of it to help Bill and Melinda fight poverty, disease, and hunger around the world.

But they didn't stop there. This year, Warren, Bill, and Melinda have spearheaded a new effort—the Giving Pledge—to urge the richest Americans to dedicate the majority of their wealth to worthy causes. Already, 40 of the most affluent families and individuals in the nation have signed the pledge and begun to give away their fortunes. I am proud to count myself among them. Signing the Giving Pledge was one of the best and easiest decisions I've ever made.

Several years ago, I was extremely lucky that an investment firm I cofounded, the Blackstone Group, generated a major fortune for me when the firm went public. It was exciting to participate in such an unexpected success. But it has been much more exciting—and far more fulfilling—to give the proceeds away.

In 2007, I committed a billion dollars—most of that Blackstone windfall—to establish the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a family foundation that focuses on helping ensure that our country's future economic prospects are secure. As the son of poor Greek immigrants who has certainly lived the American Dream, I am most passionate about this cause, because I believe we are currently at serious risk of undermining our future prosperity due to our nation's massive, unsustainable debts and deficits. I want my children's and grandchildren's generations to have a greater inheritance than a stack of unpaid bills. To lead our nation in a more positive direction, the Peterson Foundation has focused on educating, motivating, and activating the American people and public officials to do something about these unthinkable debts, take ownership of our country's future, and help assure the birthright of young Americans to a stronger nation and better prospects.

Beyond the Peterson Foundation, I am involved in several other institutions that I am especially committed to, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Museum of Modern Art, the Concord Coalition, and the Peterson Institute for International Economics. I contribute not only my financial capital but my personal capital, my passion, to these organizations as well.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once claimed, "The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves to its children." Giving generously and joyfully is part of passing that test and fulfilling our duty as ancestors.

So, philanthropy isn't just about giving money. It's also about giving yourself. When you do the latter, the power and effectiveness of what you give financially will grow alongside your personal satisfaction. It's a real job—the best, most fun, and sometimes most difficult one I've ever had. Every day, I put on a suit and tie and go to work with wonderful people at my foundation who are dedicated to serving our country, empowering the next generation, and keeping the American Dream alive and well. It's the greatest feeling in the world.