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Gifts from the 50 biggest donors dropped by half in 2018

Tech titans juiced the stats last year by making big donations to their own foundations. This year, things are different.

Gifts from the 50 biggest donors dropped by half in 2018
[Image: StudioM1/iStock]

Within a year, the value of gifts from the country’s 50 largest donors has dropped by half. In 2017, the top 50 contributors in the U.S. gave $14.7 billion to various causes. In 2018, they combined to share just $7.8 billion, according to the Philanthropy 50, an annual report from by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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That might sound bleak, but it’s actually more of a recalibration. In 2017, the numbers were boosted by the fact that many tech titans invested heavily in themselves, giving huge lump sums to their own philanthropic efforts or enterprises. The top three givers were Bill and Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Michael and Susan Dell, all of whom gave gifts in the billion-dollar-plus range to their own organizations.

This year, the Gateses, Zuckerberg/Chan, and the Dells dropped to 12th, 7th, and completely off the list, respectively. The overall level of generosity dipped accordingly, but still beat the 2016 total of $5.6 billion. Not only that, but tech money continues to power change in big ways, according to a deeper study by The Chronicle.

Overall, Amazon royalty Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos contributed the most, with $2 billion gifted to the newly established One Day Fund for nonprofit preschools and homeless aid. EBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam,  (for civic participation and data rights) and Microsoft alumni Steve and Connie Ballmer (economic mobility) also made the top five with gifts in the $300 million to $400 million range.

Some donors are still thinking very near-term–Bloomberg, for instance, made the list for donations tackling all manner of pressing environmental, educational, and public health issues through Bloomberg Philanthropies. But as The Chronicle points out, there’s a growing impulse to back projects that can protect or redefine the future. For example, Stephen Schwarzman and the late Paul Allen both contributed heavily to promote more education and investigation into artificial intelligence.

If there’s one trend winning out, it’s that giving while living remains popular: Instead of waiting to create eponymous foundations designed to last in perpetuity, people with deep pockets are spending heavily to make change now.

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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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