Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates, and Elon Musk Top List of America’s 50 Biggest Charity Donors
The top echelon of charitable giving in 2021 boasted some familiar faces, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual ranking of the 50 Americans who gave the most to charity last year.
Four donors gave more than $1 billion in 2021. Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates topped the list, pledging $15 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a huge player in global health and American education. They announced the multi-year pledge two months after shocking the philanthropic world with the news that they planned to divorce.
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Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates topped the list, pledging $15 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a huge player in global health and American education. They announced the multiyear pledge two months after shocking the philanthropic world with the news that they planned to divorce.
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Elon Musk, the CEO of electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla, gave donations worth $5.7 billion to an unidentified charity or charities in November. The gifts were made with no announcement and became apparent only through a mandatory securities filing.
Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and financial titan, took the third spot, giving $1.7 billion to the arts, education, the environment, and other causes.
Hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman and his wife, Neri Oxman, ranked fourth, primarily for donating to Ackman’s Pershing Square Foundation and to their donor-advised funds.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, round out the billionaire givers in 2021, with contributions totaling $1.05 billion to bolster their Chan Zuckerberg Foundation and a donor-advised fund.
In total, the donors on the Philanthropy 50 gave more than $33.4 billion to charity, with the median level of giving just above $101 million.
But some philanthropy experts argue that the large gifts that earned many billionaires a spot on this year’s list aren’t as impressive when one considers that many of these donors have seen their wealth grow by tens of billions in the past few years.
A 2018 report by Bridgespan found that ultrawealthy American families, those with $500 million or more, donated just 1.2 percent of their assets to charity in 2017. There are few signs that ratio is increasing — and it may in fact be decreasing, given the strong stock market in recent years.
“Wealthier Americans have seen their net worth rise by 60 to 70 percent,” says Alison Powell, a partner and philanthropy adviser at the Bridgespan Group. “It’s really surprising that giving hasn’t expanded more. Our focus is on getting wealth off the sidelines and to work in the charitable sector.”
Novelist and high-profile philanthropist MacKenzie Scott is among the notable absences on the Philanthropy 50 list. It’s likely that she made gifts to her donor-advised funds that would have earned her a spot on the Philanthropy 50, but she and her representatives declined to provide information to the Chronicle.
From this list, you would not know that we’re living through a global pandemic, and you would not know that as a society we’re grappling with racial inequity.
Scott gave at least $2.8 billion to charities last year, likely through three donor-advised funds housed at the Chicago Community Trust, Fidelity Charitable, and the National Philanthropic Trust, which the online magazine Puck has reported belong to her.
Concentration of Giving
Nearly 86 percent of the funds contributed by donors on the Philanthropy 50 — some $23.8 billion — went to a relatively narrow slice of the charitable sector: colleges and universities, hospitals, foundations, and donor-advised funds.
That was a disappointment for charity advocates who had hoped that broader giving in 2020 — which featured large gifts to food banks, racial-justice groups, historically Black colleges and universities, and human-service organizations — marked a turning point in giving by the ultrawealthy.
“From this list, you would not know that we’re living through a global pandemic, and you would not know that as a society we’re grappling with racial inequity,” says Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. “This gift list is completely disconnected from the reality of our society right now.”
There are some exceptions. Jack Dorsey (No. 7), the co-founder of Twitter, continued to give big to advance social justice and to provide Covid aid through his donor-advised fund. Scott also made large racial-justice donations.
The Chronicle’s rankings are based on the total amount philanthropists gave or pledged in 2021. The information is based on extensive research with donors, their beneficiaries, and public records.
Half the donors on the Philanthropy 50 made their fortunes in either finance (14) or technology (12) so it is not surprising that Washington State and California, home to tech hubs in Seattle and Silicon Valley, received the largest share of donations, followed by New York State, with its financial capital, New York City.
It’s not just critics of the uberwealthy who are picking up on the fact that billionaire philanthropy is increasingly concentrated in certain sectors and locations.
Some of the donors on the list are noting the same phenomenon — and steering their donations to areas where they see greater need.
Mark Jones (tied for No. 26 on the list), who earned an MBA from Harvard Business School before founding an insurance company with his wife, Robyn, says they believe they will have a greater impact with their $101 million gift to Montana State University to expand rural nursing education than they would have by adding to Harvard Business School’s endowment.
“We’re not interested in making donations to attract attention or prestige,” Mark Jones says. “What matters is how we can use our resources to help improve the lives of as many people as we can in the communities where we live.”
Austin Russell (No. 37), the founder of Luminar Technologies, which develops technology used in autonomous vehicles, is, at age 26, the youngest donor on the list and one of five donors on the list under age 40. Russell said in an interview that he chose to make his first megagift to the Central Florida Foundation because two other areas where he has personal or professional ties — Los Angeles and the Bay Area — have far greater philanthropic resources than does Orlando.