In top feel-good news this week:

Forty of the wealthiest families and individuals in America have made an impressive pledge to help address some of society’s most pressing problems–by donating at least 50% of their wealth to charitable organizations and philanthropic causes.

Wait, what?

That’s right: The Giving Pledge, an initiative led by Warren Buffet (the third wealthiest person in the world) and Melinda and Bill Gates (who ranks second on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people), invites billionaires to make a commitment to give away at least half of their wealth, either during their lifetimes or after their deaths, to help make the world a better place. Every person who chooses to pledge will do so publicly and will write a letter explaining their decision the pledge (you can read letters from the first round of pledges, announced on August 4, here).

For example: Buffet pledges to give away 99% of his money, saying “Were we to use more than 1% of my claim checks on ourselves, neither our happiness or well-being would be enhanced. In contrast, that remaining 99% can have a huge effect on the health and welfare of others.”

And while The Giving Pledge is “specifically focused on billionaires,” it’s inspired by the millions of non-billionares who give generously to charities.

The Giving Pledge is the first project of its kind: it’s designed to raise a lot of money for charities, but it’s also designed to start conversations about wealth and philanthropy and the effect money can have on others. If the wealthiest people in the world can pledge to give away 50% of their riches, how much can you afford to give away? 10%? Five? Can you pledge your time to volunteer with an organization? The numbers don’t really matter–awareness matters and a commitment to change. Can you commit to talking about philanthropy with your coworkers, friends and families?

Canadian charities were hit especially hard during the recent recession–a survey of 1,500 charities by Imagine Canada found that 22% said they were at risk because of the economic downturn and 15% said they were having difficulty fulfilling their missions. And overall funding from community organizations fell by $25 million in 2009, according to Community Foundations Canada.

That cool $25 mil may be a drop in the bucket to signatories of The Giving Pledge, but it’s not a drop in the bucket to the charities that are struggling to stay afloat without it. Take a page from the book of Buffet and Gates: think about where your money goes and and where it can make a difference.

(Don’t know where to start? Try SiG@MaRS’ Social Venture Registry–an online database of organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, that are working to make the world a better place. Or maybe your business can take on a social purpose itself.)

Vanessa Caldwell

Vanessa is a writer at MaRS. She writes all kinds of things, like posts for the MaRS blog, articles for Convergence (the MaRS magazine) and the weekly MaRS eNewsletters. See more…