News and analysis
February 06, 2011

After a Frugal Year, 2011 May See a Jump in Top Donors’ Giving

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Tamsen Ann Ziff, a jewelry designer and boutique owner, gave $30-million to the Metropolitan Opera, placing her in a tie for No. 35 on The Chronicle's ranking of the most-generous U.S. donors.

The year 2010 brought a lot of talk of philanthropy by the super-rich—but not much giving.

Despite more than 50 billionaires announcing last year that they would ultimately devote at least half of their wealth to charity, few made big gifts in 2010.

Just 17 people on The Chronicle’s annual list of the 50 most-generous donors also appeared on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

Over all, the donors on The Chronicle’s list—which actually numbered 54 this year, thanks to some ties in the rankings—committed a combined total of $3.3- billion, the smallest sum since The Chronicle began to track the biggest donors in 2000. The list measures the cumulative total each individual gives to charitable causes, not simply the biggest donations of the year. Just nine people on the list committed more than $100-million in 2010, compared with 16 in 2007 and 18 in 2006. The median gift was $39.6-million, down from $41.4-million in 2009, $69.3-million in 2008, and $74.4-million in 2007.

Donors and nonprofit officials said fears of the economy sliding back into recession and uncertainty about tax rules combined to shrink big giving. But with the federal estate tax and deduction limits resolved, at least temporarily, and warnings about a double-dip recession having faded, 2011 could be rosier.

“I’m optimistic about it; people will take some of this certainty and turn it into philanthropy,” said Richard A. Mittenthal, president of the TCC Group, which consults with philanthropies and nonprofits. Said Eli Broad (No. 5 on the Philanthropy 50), the real-estate mogul turned philanthropist: “I think 2011 will be a far better year for philanthropy than 2008, 2009, and 2010.”

A Generational Shift?

While nearly half of the gifts of $5-million or more made by people on the Philanthropy 50 went to colleges and universities, signs abound that a generational shift is afoot. No big gifts to colleges came from the under-50 set; instead, those youthful donors gave mostly to medical care, human rights, social entrepreneurship, and efforts to improve public schools.

Hospitals and medical centers were the second most popular cause for The Chronicle’s top donors. No donations of $5-million or more went to social-service groups.

Some people on The Chronicle’s list said their gifts last year were made possible by the economic recovery, sluggish though it may have been.

As head of the Goldman Sachs merchant-banking division, Richard A. Friedman (tied for No. 49) says he had to briefly put off big new commitments when the markets plunged. A trustee of New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, he knew the institution was gearing up for a capital campaign but said fund raisers were “smart enough not even to ask” his family for a big gift that fall.

In late 2009, when the stock market had stabilized, Mr. Friedman and his wife, Susan, began seriously considering a big gift. Last January they committed $20-million to the medical center for an institute to spearhead brain research.

Top of the Rankings

Nonprofit officials recount similar stories of rich people coming back to the table—and some organizations are seeing those discussions produce gifts.

Donations of $5-million or more have picked up at Cornell University, for example. The Ithaca, N.Y., institution received 21 gifts of $5-million or more last fiscal year (including two donations from people on The Chronicle’s list) and is on pace to win a similar number of gifts this year. In 2009 the university got just seven gifts of that size.

In a year in which even the country’s richest people were reluctant to give, it’s no surprise that the donors sitting atop The Chronicle’s list are philanthropy stalwarts, people who have become nearly as well known for their charity as for their business endeavors.

Leading the list was George Soros, the hedge-fund manager, who gave $332-million to his Open Society Foundations, in New York. The 80-year-old Mr. Soros, who profited handsomely during the bear market, has said he will be stepping up his philanthropy over the next few years.

Next in the rankings was Michael R. Bloomberg, New York’s billionaire mayor, who divided $279.2-million among nearly 1,000 charities. More than two-thirds of the groups were in New York, including charities that press for changes to the immigration system, conduct cancer research, promote literacy, and work for a wide range of other causes.

T. Denny Sanford (No. 3 on the list), the businessman from Sioux Falls, S.D., made his fifth appearance on The Chronicle’s list, committing $162.5-million to a handful of health and medical organizations.

Irwin M. Jacobs, co-founder of telecommunications giant Qualcomm, and his wife, Joan (No. 4), appeared for the sixth time on The Chronicle’s list by committing $119.5-million.

Some of the money will help establish a new medical center at the University of California at San Diego, where Mr. Jacobs once worked as a professor. Mr. Jacobs said he hoped the medical center could pioneer a way to provide high-quality health care at a lower cost—something he said the controversial new health-care legislation might make it easier to achieve.

Rounding out the top five were Mr. Broad and his wife, Edythe, who gave $118.3-million to their foundations, which support efforts to improve the public-education system, promote medical research, and advance public appreciation of contemporary art.

The three biggest names in philanthropy—Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren E. Buffett—don’t appear in the rankings because the money they gave in 2010 ($46.4-million and $1.9-billion, respectively) were to pay off pledges announced in previous years. The Chronicle’s list includes only new pledges and gifts.

Young Donors, New Causes

As usual, mega-wealthy people gave generously to their alma maters and other higher-education institutions. Of the 65 gifts of $5-million or more from donors on The Chronicle’s list, 28 went to colleges and universities.

But the youngest donors on the list favored other causes.

The Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (tied for No. 10), at age 26 the youngest person ever to appear on The Chronicle’s list, pledged $100-million to help overhaul Newark, N.J.’s school system. The eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, (No. 16), both 43, gave $61.5-million, mostly to their philanthropies, which support social entrepreneurship, human rights, and other causes.

The bulk of the $59.3-million that William A. Ackman, a 44-year old hedge-fund manager, and his wife, Karen (No. 17), gave last year went to their foundation, which has joined Mr. Zuckerberg in supporting Newark schools and is also backing social entrepreneurs and human-rights activists.

Whitney Tilson, a 44-year-old hedge-fund manager and friend of Mr. Ackman’s from their Harvard undergraduate days, said he expects the face of big giving to change with his generation.

“I can think of no less needy charity than Harvard,” Mr. Tilson said. “I have to struggle to think of anyone in my age group who has given big money to a traditional charity.”  

 Government cuts also fueled at least one gift.

Lin Arison (No. 28), whose late husband founded Carnival Cruise Lines, gave $39-million to an arts nonprofit the two started three decades ago as a means to spur Miami’s art scene and foster up-and-coming talent. But her recent gift will help the nonprofit start a new arts-education program in schools and comes amid concern about schools cutting back on arts programs.

'Giving Pledge’ Results

The big philanthropy event of 2010, the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge, influenced few donors last year. Ten of the couples and individuals on The Chronicle’s Philanthropy 50 list (13 people, including spouses) have signed the Giving Pledge. Mr. Broad and Mr. Jacobs, who have signed the pledge, said it would take some time for people to figure out how to give away their fortunes.

While part of the goal of the Giving Pledge is to get wealthy people to come forward as philanthropic role models, Giving Pledge members haven’t exactly embraced public giving.

Many declined to respond to The Chronicle’s requests for information on their 2010 charity.

In general, public pressure doesn’t seem to be unlocking many big gifts. Despite the criticism that financiers have faced over big bonuses and risky practices, they showed up on the list in only slightly higher numbers than in past years.

Goldman Sachs’s Mr. Friedman, who has served on Mount Sinai’s board for nearly a decade, said giving was a personal decision. “You have to decide whether it’s a priority for you or not. I don’t think you’re going to get less bad publicity.”

Caroline Bermudez contributed to this article.