News and analysis
January 01, 2013

America’s Wealthiest Donors Slow Their Giving

Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters/Newscom

Warren Buffett

America’s billionaires gave less in 2012 than in 2011, a new Chronicle tally shows.

The largest gifts announced by American philanthropists in 2012 totaled nearly $5.1-billion, but $3-billion of that was from Warren Buffett’s promise in August to give stock valued at $1-billion to each of three foundations run by his children.

Without Mr. Buffett’s pledges, the biggest gifts announced in 2012 would have totaled only $2-billion—far less than 2011’s $2.6-billion.

Nonetheless, three gifts of $100-million or more were announced in December, so that could be a positive sign for 2013.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder, donated $498.8-million in stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in mid-December, within days of gifts from Mortimer Zuckerman, the publisher and real-estate executive who provided $200-million to Columbia University, and the Hollywood mogul David Geffen, who gave $100-million for scholarships to the medical school at the University of California at Los Angeles.

$100-Million Contributions

Thirteen of the commitments in 2012 were for $100-million or more (counting Mr. Buffett’s), three more than in 2011 and seven more than in 2010.

The new list shows charities’ continuing struggle to raise big sums even after the recession ended.

The biggest gifts from individuals totaled $4.1-billion in 2007, then rose to $8-billion in 2008, although half of that came from a $4.5-billion bequest from the inventor James LeVoy Sorenson.

In 2009, the total plunged to $2.7-billion and in 2010 and to $1.4-billion.

Meanwhile, gifts of $1-million or more picked up steam in 2012. Not counting Mr. Buffett’s gifts, donations of $1-million or more totaled $6.1-billion in 2012, compared with $5.4-billion in 2011.

Colleges and Foundations Benefit

Six foundations and six colleges and universities won the largest gifts in 2012.

The most unusual donation was a $100-million pledge from the hedge-fund manager John Paulson, and his wife, Jenny, to the Central Park Conservancy, which works to protect the historic park.

And two donations were for brain research: Besides Mr. Zuckerman’s gift to help Columbia build a brain-science center, Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, provided $300-million to expand an institute he created to study brain science.

The second biggest gift of 2012 was from Mr. Zuckerberg, who with his wife, Priscilla Chan, committed money for education and health causes.

Biggest Gifts Announced by Individuals in 2012

Amount Donor Purpose or beneficiary
$1.03-billion (pledge) The investor Warren Buffett Howard G. Buffett Foundation
$1.03-billion (pledge) The investor Warren Buffett NoVo Foundation (Peter Buffett's fund)
$1.03-billion (pledge) The investor Warren Buffett Sherwood Foundation (Susan Buffett's fund)
$498.8-million Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co-founder, and his wife, Priscilla Chan Silicon Valley Community Foundation, to support education and health
$300-million (pledge) Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder Allen Institute for Brain Science, so it can expand its staff and programs
$200-million (pledge) The publisher and real-estate executive Mortimer Zuckerman Columbia University's Mind Brain Behavior Institute
$150-million (bequest) Fred Fields, who headed Coe Manufacturing Company Oregon Community Foundation, to support arts and education
$150-million (pledge) The financier Carl Icahn Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for medical research
$140-million (bequest) David Gundlach, founder of an insurance company Elkhart County Community Foundation
$125-million (pledge) Phil Knight, Nike's chairman, and his wife, Penelope Oregon Health & Science University Foundation, for a cardiovascular institute
$116.4-million (pledge) The venture capitalist Michael Moritz and his wife, Harriet Heyman, a writer University of Oxford, for undergraduate scholarships
$100-million (pledge) The entertainment executive David Geffen University of California at Los Angeles's medical school, for scholarships
$100-million (pledge) The financier John Paulson and his wife, Jenny Central Park Conservancy, for endowment and park-restoration programs
$60-million (pledge) The businessman David Koch Metropolitan Museum of Art, for renovations of its outdoor plaza
$60-million (pledge) James Simons, a technology entrepreneur, and his wife, Marilyn University of California at Berkeley, for a new computing institute

Note: Does not include gifts of artwork or other noncash donations or gifts from anonymous donors.

The biggest gifts of the year show one slice of American philanthropy. In February, The Chronicle will release a more comprehensive tally of donations by America’s wealthy. The Philanthropy 50 will show who gave the most to all kinds of charities.

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.