In 2018, the top 10 largest charitable gifts from ultra-rich donors added up to $5.8 billion. That’s far less than what was given by the same set in 2017, when the top contributions totaled $10.2 billion, according to a new report from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
This year’s class even had a beneficial statistical asterisk: The Chronicle counted 12 contributions, not 10, because two amounts tied. “One of the things that stood out was just the drop [in value] of single hit gifts from individuals,” says Chronicle staff writer Maria Di Mento, who researched the report.
In 2018, Jeff Bezos spent $2 billion on his Day One Fund to fight family homelessness and build nonprofit preschools, and Michael Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to support a financial aid program for low-income students at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. “Big wealthy donors just like everyone else are taking an approach these days that is much more cautious,” Di Mento adds, noting the shifting political climate. “I think there is uncertainty about what the next two years will hold.”
Bloomberg actually shows up twice in the list: He gave a separate $375 million donation to two educational programs (American Talent Initiative and College Point), echoing at least one major theme among other donors: bolstering the quality and increased access to higher education. “A lot of people are giving to education programs at large institutions and universities to ensure that our education system is giving students–and a lot of different types of students–what they need to excel so that, by extension, the country will remain strong,” Di Mento says.
Artificial intelligence research also received a fairly large share of the top funding. That includes $350 million to support AI studies at MIT from Blackstone Group cofounder Stephen Schwarzman, and $125 million for the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence from the now late Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. It echoes a larger trend of a wide array of donors funneling money toward artificial intelligence causes in recent years.
The 2018 totals are more in line with how giving was happening in 2016, when the U.S.’s top 10 donations totaled $4.3 billion in individual gifts. Part of what made 2017 so outstanding was the sheer size of one particular gift. Bill and Melinda Gates contributed $4.6 billion in Microsoft stock to the already $40 billion Gates Foundation. There were 3 billion-plus givers, compared to just two last year. Givers also made a wide distribution of mid-range contributions–above $5 million but below $1 billion (three in 2017 compared to zero in 2018). And Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan funneled billions to build out their own eponymous philanthropy effort, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. That’s not necessarily a repeatable proposition.
Major givers in 2018 also contracted the range of where that money is going. In 2017, for instance, the Gateses, Zuckerberg and Chan, and Michael and Susan Dell all gave billion-dollar sums to their own foundations or limited liability companies to work on improving global health and development, a broad slate of educational, health, housing and criminal justice reforms, and economic mobility, respectively.
Di Mento points out that the dip in public giving might not be as alarming at it seems because this total only counted publicly disclosed gifts. Some donors may have chosen to keep their support of various topics private. But giving openly in especially large amounts has a secondary value. “Donors at this level give money to help causes, but also to show their peers, ‘Hey, look, I’m willing to put tens of millions of dollars toward this cause or organization. You should too,'” Di Mento adds. In 2017, more of that money was earmarked in ways that seemingly opposed the federal government’s isolationist agenda and encouraged more global aid. Now it seems to be going toward growing a next generation of leaders and thinkers, and illuminating future threats.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that there were 12 contributions on the list, but they were from 10 individuals, some of whom gave more than one gift that made the list.