News and analysis
December 30, 2011

Donations From the Rich to Charities Rose in 2011

Michael Pirnique

The Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton and her family provided $800-million to build the Crystal Bridges Museum, in Bentonville, Ark.

Few Americans are seeing relief from the nation’s economic slump, but the finances of some nonprofits are much rosier as the nation’s wealthy stepped up their multimillion dollar gifts in 2011.

The biggest gifts announced by Americans totaled more than $2.6-billion, compared with $1.3-billion in 2010. (Twelve donations were included in the list because of two ties for the 10 biggest donations of the year.)

Still, 2011’s total wasn’t quite as bountiful as 2009’s $2.7-billion sum and nothing close to 2008’s $8-billion. (A $4.5-billion bequest from the inventor James LeVoy Sorenson was one reason that year’s tally was so high.)

Perhaps the most striking sign of a recovery in giving was the number of donations of $100-million or more last year. Ten people committed that much, an increase from 2010, when only six philanthropists gave $100-million or more, and from 2009 when seven donors announced gifts of that size.

What’s more, gifts of $1-million or more totaled $5.4-billion in 2011, compared with $3.6-billion a year ago.

Museum Tops the List

The top gift on the list went to a cultural institution—the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art—but universities dominated this year’s mammoth contributions, receiving eight of the largest commitments.

Crystal Bridges, which opened last month, was the brainchild of Alice Walton, daughter of the Wal-Mart retail-chain founder Sam Walton. She convinced her megafoundation to support the ambitious 201,000-square-foot museum.

Following the Walton gifts in size:

  • A $350-million pledge from Charles F. Feeney, a co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group, to help Cornell University build a technology campus in New York City.
  • William S. Dietrich II, a steel supplier who gave $265-million to Carnegie Mellon University. Mr. Dietrich made another of the year’s biggest gifts—$125-million to the University of Pittsburgh—soon before he died in October.
  • The University of Southern California, which announced this year that it would seek to raise $6-billion, more than any other nonprofit has ever collected in one drive, was the only institution to receive two donations on the list. It received $200-million from the businessman David Dornsife and $110-million from the energy entrepreneur John Mork.

Wealth Gap

The uptick in giving by millionaires and billionaires comes in a year marked by increased attention to the gap between rich and poor thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But at the highest reaches of the income ladder, it’s hard to tell whether public pressure to give is making much of a difference.

Eighteen months ago, Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates publicly urged the nation’s billionaires to sign the Giving Pledge, promising to commit at least half of their wealth to charities. Yet that effort hasn’t produced many new contributions.

Only two of the people who made the biggest gifts of the year are among the 69 people who have so far signed the pledge.

They are Mr. Feeney and James Simons, who founded the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. Mr. Simons pledged $150-million to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he was once a professor and chairman of the university’s mathematics department.

While the list released today shows the biggest gifts this year, The Chronicle will soon publish its annual Philanthropy 50, a compilation of the 50 Americans who gave the most money to charity throughout 2011. In the meantime, readers can keep up with all gifts of $1-million or more in our free database.