Rates of Criminality Amongst Giving Pledge Signatories


  1. I investigate the rates of criminal misconduct amongst people who have taken The Giving Pledge (roughly: ~200 [non-EA] billionaires who have pledged to give most of their money to charity).

  2. I find that rates are fairly high:

    1. 25% of signatories have been accused of financial misconduct, and 10% convicted[1]

    2. 4% of signatories have spent at least one day in prison

    3. Overall, 41% of signatories have had at least one allegation of substantial misconduct (financial, sexual, or otherwise)

  3. I estimate that Giving Pledgers are not less likely, and possibly more likely, to commit financial crimes than YCombinator entrepreneurs.

  4. I am unable to find evidence of The Giving Pledge doing anything to limit the risk of criminal behavior amongst its members, though I have heard second-hand that they do some sort of screening.

  5. I conclude that the rate of criminal behavior amongst major philanthropists is high, which means that we should not expect altruism to substantially lower the risks compared to that of the general population, and that negative impacts to EA’s public perception may occur independently of whether our donors actually commit crimes (e.g. because even noncriminal billionaires have a negative public image).


  1. I copied the list of signatories from their website.

  2. Gina Stuessy and I searched the internet for “(name) lawsuit”, “(name) crime” and also looked at their Wikipedia page.

  3. I categorized any results into “financial”, “sexual”, and “other”, and also marked if they had spent at least one day in jail.

  4. Gina and I eventually decided that the data collection process was too time-consuming, and we stopped partway through. The final dataset includes 115 of the 232 signatories.[2][3]

  5. Data can be found here.

How well do convictions correspond with immoral behavior?

  1. It is a well-worn take that our[4] legal system overly protects white-collar criminals: If an employee steals $20 from the cash register, that’s a criminal offense that the police will prosecute, but if an employer under-pays their employees by $20 that’s a civil offense where the police don’t get involved.

  2. I found that the punishment of the criminals in my data set correlated extremely poorly with my intuition for how immorally they had behaved.

    1. It would be funny if it weren’t sad that one of the longest prison sentences in my data set is from Kjell Inge Røkke, a Norwegian businessman who was convicted of having an illegal license for his yacht.

  3. One particular way in which white-collar offenses are weird is that they often allow the defendant to settle without admitting wrongdoing.[5] E.g. my guess is that Philip Frost is guilty, but his settlement with the SEC does not require him to admit wrongdoing.

    1. I wasn’t able to find a single person who admitted guilt in a sexual misconduct case, despite ~7% of the signatories being accused, including in high-profile cases like people involved with Jeffrey Epstein.[6]

  4. I was considering trying to add some classification like “Ben thinks this person is guilty” but decided that this would be too time-consuming and subjective.

    1. Nonetheless, if you want my subjective opinion, my guess is that most of the people who were accused of financial misconduct are guilty of immoral behavior, under a commonsense morality definition of the term.

  5. Less controversially, some of these cases are ongoing, and presumably at least some of them will result in convictions, which makes looking only at the current conviction rate misleading.

  6. In any case though, I believe that this data set establishes that the base rate of both criminal and immoral behavior is fairly high among major philanthropists, no matter how you slice the data.

Some Example Cases

Here are a few cases to give some flavor of what Giving Pledge signatories have been accused of.

Mario GabelliUsed sham businesses to fraudulently purchase portions of the US cell phone spectrum. Settled for $130 million. Sued for breach of fiduciary responsibility in an unrelated case, settled for $100 million. https://​​en.wikipedia.org/​​wiki/​​Mario_Gabelli#Legal_Issues
Michael Milken

Milken was indicted for racketeering and securities fraud in an insider trading investigation. Milken was sentenced to ten years in prison, fined $1.1 billion ($2.3 billion in 2023 dollars) and permanently barred from the securities industry. He was pardoned by Donald Trump in 2020.


Richard BransonJailed for tax fraud; accused of sexual assault but denies accusation and I cannot find official charges. https://​​en.wikipedia.org/​​wiki/​​Richard_Branson#Tax_evasion
Anil Agarwal

“In 2004, a committee of the Indian Supreme Court charged that Vedanta had dumped thousands of tons of arsenic-bearing slag near its factory in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, resulting in major poisoning of the environment and neighbouring population. In 2005, another committee of the Indian Supreme Court charged that Vedanta had forced over one hundred indigenous families from their homes in the Indian state of Odisha, where it sought to mine bauxite. According to the committee’s report: “An atmosphere of fear was created through the hired goons”, and residents were “beaten up by the employees of M/​s Vedanta”.”


Are Giving Pledge signatories less likely to commit financial crimes?

  1. I previously estimated that 1-2% of YCombinator-backed companies with valuations over $100M had serious allegations of fraud.

  2. While not all Giving Pledge signatories are entrepreneurs, a large fraction are, which makes this a reasonable reference class. (An even better reference class would be “non-signatory billionaires”, of course.)

  3. We might naïvely think that Giving Pledge signatories (being charitably minded) are less likely to commit financial crimes—but if anything, it seems like the opposite is true.[7]

    1. ~10% of signatories being convicted of financial misconduct and ~25% accused versus ~1% of YCombinator companies is a stark difference.

  4. I have a few possible explanations:

    1. Giving Pledge signatories tend to run publicly-traded companies, whereas YCombinator companies are usually private, and it is easier to be charged with financial misconduct if your company is publicly traded.

    2. Giving Pledge signatories are wealthier, and therefore more lucrative targets for prosecution.

    3. Giving Pledge signatories are older, and have had more time to accumulate charges.

    4. This book argues that white-collar criminals generally do not see their behavior as immoral, because humans’ moral intuitions don’t fit a white-collar world. E.g. someone who is unusually moral might be more willing to give money to a homeless person on the street, but they aren’t any less likely to aggressively depreciate assets in a quarterly earnings statement, because the latter does not pattern match to our intuitions of a (im)moral decision.

  5. I have not looked into any of these explanations deeply, but from a pragmatic perspective it seems clear that we should not expect that altruistically-minded HNWIs are notably less likely to commit financial crimes than the average person with the opportunity to do so.

Giving Pledge’s Response to Criminal Behavior

  1. As far as I can tell, the Giving Pledge is quite hands-off, and has not commented on the criminal behavior of some of its members or attempted to prevent criminal behavior. I can’t find a single press release from them saying anything; the profiles of people like Michael Milliken are sitting there without even a small banner saying “we don’t endorse crimes,” etc.[8]

    1. The only thing I am aware of is two cases in which they have silently removed profiles: T. Denny Sanford was removed after accusations of child pornography, and Sam Bankman-Fried was removed after charges of defrauding investors.

  2. I have heard secondhand that they screen signatories beforehand, but cannot find any public documentation of their screening (and, as evidenced by the statistics reported here, any such screening does not seem to be terribly effective).

  3. I’m not surprised that they didn’t make any actually-consequential reforms, but I am surprised that they don’t e.g. issue press releases making some milquetoast statement about crime being bad.

PR Impacts

  1. The Giving Pledge (and billionaire philanthropy more generally) receives a lot of criticism.

  2. Despite this, I can find very little criticism referencing the fact that many of these signatories are criminals.[9]

  3. My (perhaps uncharitable) interpretation is that there are some people who believe that billionaire philanthropy is immoral, and some who don’t, but very few who take the nuanced view that some but not all billionaire philanthropy is immoral.

    1. Someone told me that they think this is a blind spot of EAs in general: The major risk of having wealthy/​powerful people support your movement is that they may co-opt it toward their own goals, and that risk is largely independent of whether or not that person commits crimes, so the public is correctly not updating very much based on a certain movement’s donors being criminals.

    2. This fits with information I’ve heard from university group organizers: University students sometimes distrust EA because of ties to “big tech” or “Silicon Valley billionaires”, and the more specific worry that some of these billionaires may have committed crimes does not affect their trust as much.

Implications for EA

  1. It seems fairly likely that any engagement with an ultrahigh net worth donor carries a substantial risk that the donor will turn out to have engaged in criminal behavior or will in the future.

    1. Some EA organizations use services that screen potential donors, but I am skeptical that these services will meaningfully decrease the risk of criminal behavior among these individuals, or be able to accurately identify which people are most likely to commit white-collar crimes.

  2. We should also be aware that engagement with ultrahigh net worth donors carries a risk of damaging EA’s public perception, and that this risk may be partially independent of whether the donors are actually criminal.

Thanks especially to Gina Stuessy for help with this article, but it also benefited from feedback from Jake McKinnon, Zach Robinson, Ben Rachbach, Will MacAskill, Jason, and Julia Wise.

  1. ^

    Legal pedantry note: I am including here people who have had civil judgments rendered against them (e.g. lawsuits from the SEC), even though in civil judgments people are technically “adjudged liable”, not “convicted”.

  2. ^

    I realized after doing this that the names are listed in alphabetical order by last name, so if there is some relationship between alphabetical position and criminality that bias would be leaking into the data set. This seems unlikely to me, but I guess you never know.

  3. ^

    I populated the data for Michael Milken out of order because I found out about him through an earlier research project; he is therefore left out of aggregate statistics

  4. ^

    I’ve most frequently heard this criticism of the US legal system; I think analogous things are true in other countries but I’m not sure.

  5. ^

    I tried to use my best judgment when marking people as “convicted” or not, but I didn’t have an established set of best practices to rely on, and I think it might be valuable for someone to recategorize these using a more formal method, if any readers are looking for a small research project.

  6. ^

    A reviewer noted that this is common with any sort of civil litigation, it’s not unique to “white-collar crime”.

  7. ^

    Please note that this is not a perfect comparison. A key difference is that the YCombinator article used a denominator of companies, whereas this looks at individuals. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if it turned out that giving pledgers are substantially less likely than YCombinator-backed companies to commit fraud.

  8. ^

    I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they have some screening process which secretly prevents sketchy people from joining, but I can’t find any reference to it online. And of course we can at least say that this screening process does not seem to be completely effective, given the rate of criminals amongst signatories.

  9. ^

    This paper lists numerous criticisms of billionaire philanthropy: it diminishes the role of community-based giving practices, it requires grantees to “assimilate the dominant colonizer white culture”, it undermines democratic control, it increases income inequality, it overly pushes market-based solutions, it influences political decisions through funding think tanks. Nowhere is criminal behavior on behalf of signatories mentioned.