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America’s Most Generous Donors Are Giving Less But Betting Bigger

Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual Philanthropy 50 list finds that the total dollars given by the top 50 philanthropists are down, but that the projects they’re funding have a greater chance of doing enormous good.

America’s Most Generous Donors Are Giving Less But Betting Bigger
[Photo: Vanzyst/iStock]

America’s top 50 philanthropists gave a combined $5.6 billion to health, humanitarian, educational and cultural causes in 2016. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s actually 20% less that same segment gave a year ago, and down nearly 50% from 2014, according to Philanthropy 50, an analysis put out by Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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But while there’s less money in the top pot, a lot more of it may be more wisely spent. As Co.Exist has reported, many of 2016’s publicly disclosed “megagifts”–those totaling $100 million or more–shifted away from the classic institutional allotments to hospitals, museums, or universities that have defined previous giving trends. From a world-changing perspective, that’s a good thing: Many such gifts are honorifics; the giver’s name may end up etched on some building, but there’s little chance that they’re risking money in pursuit of big change.

According to the Philanthropy 50, six of the top 10 donors in 2016 gave toward larger, non-traditional bets that may improve humanity at large. That’s far above the current sector’s standard of 20% going toward big bets for social change. And above the Chronicle’s recent report for the year’s single largest publicly reported megagifts, where one-third were earmarked as such.

The biggest social change maker was Michael Bloomberg, who put over $600 million toward both anti-tobacco initiatives in the developing world and widespread U.S.-based health initiative aimed improving public health, including reducing drug additions, controlling gun violence, and tackling obesity. Other progressive thinkers in the top spots included tech or finance luminaries like Paul Allen, John and Laura Arnold, Larry Ellison, and Pierre and Pam Omidyar.

Other givers appear to be rethinking how to give effectively to universities and museums altogether. For instance, the estate of Howard and Lottie Marcus–former Berkshire Hathaway investors–put $400 million into a bequest to an Israel-based university attempting to secure peace in the Middle East by funding research aimed at improving access to water through desalination projects, and harnessing other natural resources. (That’s a lot different than Nike exec Phil Knight’s $900 million to University of Oregon and Stanford, his alma maters.)

At the same time, tech investor Robert Smith’s $20 million gift to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History–just part of his annual contributions–will likely do more to influence equality in society than the $100 million that David Geffen put toward an eponymous wing at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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