News and analysis
February 07, 2017

Philanthropy 50: Nike Mogul Tops Chart While Tech Giants Flex Charity Muscle

Credits l to r: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post/Getty Images; Chad Batka/The New York Times/Redux; Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux

FACES OF GIVING: Financier Robert Smith (left) and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg make their first appearances this year on The Chronicle's annual list of America's biggest donors. Philanthropy 50 perennial Michael Bloomberg ranks No. 2.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, top this year’s Philanthropy 50, The Chronicle’s annual ranking of the 50 Americans who donate the most to charity.

The Knights earned the No. 1 spot for the first time in the 17-year history of the list. They gave $900 million in 2016: $500 million to the University of Oregon and $400 million to Stanford.

Why Isn’t Warren Buffett in the Philanthropy 50?

In 2016, Warren Buffett gave away shares in his investment company valued at nearly $3 billion — more than three times the amount donated last year by Phil and Penny Knight, who ranked No. 1 on The Chronicle’s latest list of top U.S. donors.

However, Mr. Buffett does not qualify for Philanthropy 50 because his known 2016 largess stems from philanthropic commitments he made a decade ago to annually donate Berkshire Hathaway stock to the foundations of Bill and Melinda Gates, his late first wife, and his three children. In compiling the list, The Chronicle counts only the full amount of a pledge in the year it is made, even if it will take years to pay off. (See here for more on our methodology.)

Here’s how much Mr. Buffett gave to charity last year:

  • 14,968,423 shares of class "B" Berkshire stock valued at nearly $2.2 billion to the Gates Foundation — the latest installment of a pledge of some $30 billion in shares Mr. Buffett announced in 2006.
  • 1,496,842 shares valued at more than $218.4 million to the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation — named for Mr. Buffett’s first wife, who died in 2004. To date he has contributed almost half of approximately $3.6 billion he has pledged to the fund.
  • 1,047,785 shares (about $153 million) apiece to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which funds agriculture, clean-water, and antipoverty programs; the NoVo Foundation, co-founded by Peter Buffett and his wife, Jennifer, which focuses on the well-being of girls and women globally and supports economic and education programs; and daughter Susan Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation, which backs social-justice work and early-childhood education. Warren Buffett has promised about $1.3 billion apiece to the three foundations and has given each about $977 million.
Colleges and universities, including several with large endowments, received nearly half of money contributed last year by Philanthropy 50 donors. Giving to colleges could come under scrutiny as Congress considers tax changes this year.

A Drop in Giving

Overall, giving by the Philanthropy 50 was off in 2016. They donated a combined $5.6 billion, down from $7 billion in 2015 and $10.2 billion in 2014.

One factor in the decline is the relative lack of large bequests, which often drive up the total. In addition, the stock market had a bumpy ride in 2016; its gains typically spur giving, yet it surged only in the final months of the year.

The all-consuming presidential election may also have diverted the attention of some philanthropists, says Robert Kissane, chairman of CCS Fundraising, a consulting firm.

"I think the psychic energy was going to politics and not philanthropy. People were just totally immersed in it, and so they weren’t as active" in giving, he says.

Many institutions running fundraising campaigns "took their foot of the gas" as the White House race in the fall, Mr. Kissane adds. "The election was so intense that they weren’t really asking the big, big donors as much."

Big Givers, New Faces

Rounding out the top five were media magnate Michael Bloomberg ($600.1 million); Howard and Lottie Marcus ($400 million bequest), friends of and early investors with Warren Buffett; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen ($295 million); and former hedge-fund manager John Arnold and his wife, Laura ($284 million).

Among other notable donors and trends from this year’s list:

  • Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby (No. 17) is one of four self-made women debuting on the Philanthropy 50. She made a Rockefeller-like gift to create national parkland in Maine, ending a years-long battle with residents worried about ceding land to the federal government.
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    "A national park is for everybody," Ms. Quimby told The Chronicle. "It’s not just for the multimillionaire who puts a beautiful home on the waterfront."

    The other three women: Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg (No. 11); real-estate investor Suzanne Dworak-Peck (No. 24); and Elaine Wynn (tied for No. 29), who founded hotel and casino companies with her former husband, Steve Wynn.

  • Robert Smith (No. 35), whom Forbes ranks as the country’s second-wealthiest African-American, also debuts on the list. The private-equity executive, previously a quiet philanthropist little known outside the finance world, made a big splash in 2016 with one of the biggest contributions to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture ($20 million) and his election as chairman of the Carnegie Hall board.
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    "He is stepping up, and people are taking notice," says Adrienne Brooks, the museum’s director of advancement.

  • Tech giants feature prominently on the list, holding four of the first nine spots. Altogether, nine made the list and gave away more than $1.2 billion, more than 20 percent of the total for the Philanthropy 50. Joining Mr. Allen in the top 10 are ex-Oracle CEO Larry Ellison (No. 6); eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam (No. 8); and Bill and Melinda Gates of Microsoft fame and fortune (No. 9).
  • Sixteen of the Philanthropy 50 made their wealth in finance; they gave just under $1 billion. In addition to the Arnolds, these include investment manager Robert King and his wife, Dorothy (tied for No. 12); financier Ronald Perelman (No. 19); and former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill and his wife, Joan (No. 22).
  • Museums netted $293 million in Philanthropy 50 gifts, the most since at least 2012. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is raising money for a $600 million new home, collected two Philanthropy 50 gifts worth a combined $75 million, and film and music mogul David Geffen (No. 12) gave $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  • Philanthropy 50 donors put at least $328 million into donor-advised funds, more than double the $157 million total from 2015. Among those giving via these charitable accounts: Ms. Sandberg, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings (No. 12), Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan (No. 25)
  • While President Trump’s cabinet includes many wealthy individuals, only one has ever appeared on the Philanthropy 50. Betsy DeVos, Mr. Trump’s pick for education secretary, appeared on the list in 2006 along with her husband, Dick, and his siblings, who together gave $50 million to Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Mich.

More analysis and detailed histories of the giving of all Philanthropy 50 donors are available here for Chronicle subscribers. The list is based on extensive research of donors and nonprofits to find the people who donated the most to charity in 2016.

In December The Chronicle published a list of the single biggest gifts of the year.

Megan O’Neil contributed to this article.

Send an email to Maria Di Mento and Drew Lindsay.