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- The Philanthropy 50
- How a Truckdriver-Turned Harvard MBA Came to Give $101 Million for Nursing Education in Mont.
- Why a Young Billionaire Who Led Trip to Space Gave $125 Million to Children’s Hospital
- 26-Year-Old’s $70 Million Donation Puts Him on the List of Top Donors of 2021
- 2021’s Top Donors: ‘Forbes 400' and ‘Giving Pledge’ Billionaires Who Gave Big
- Top Donors’ Giving to and From Their Foundations and Donor-Advised Funds in 2021
- How the Chronicle Compiled Its List of the Top 50 Donors of 2021
“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. High-profile philanthropist MacKenzie Scott made large racial-justice donations, but she is not in the Philanthropy 50 because neither she nor her representatives would confirm to the Chronicle how those gifts were made.
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.
“It’s hard to look at that list and think of 2021 as a watershed or transformative year,” says Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute. “This just underscores the fact that ‘eds and meds’ continue to dominate.”
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 mega-gift 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.
In total, the donors on the Philanthropy 50 gave nearly $34 billion to charity, with the median level of giving just above $100 million.
Five 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
‘Behind the Scenes’
Giving to racial-justice and racial-equity organizations may not have matched 2020 levels, but it remains a priority for many of the ultrawealthy. Bloomberg gave $150 million through his grant maker to Johns Hopkins University to enhance diversity in STEM fields. Phil and Penny Knight (No. 9) gave $30 million to a Portland charity that helps primarily Black students and their families. Zuckerberg and Chan (No. 5) gave $350 million through their giving vehicles to a criminal-justice nonprofit, and Leonard Stern (tied for No. 46) gave $50 million to the New York University Stern School of Business for financial aid for students from diverse backgrounds.
Lori Villarosa, executive director of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, says ultrawealthy donors are often far removed from communities of color, and the gifts they consider directed at racial equity may not even be supported by communities of color. Examples listed in the group’s recent report, “Mismatched: Philanthropy’s Response to the Call for Racial Justice,” include increasing teacher accountability and expanding charter schools.
“White billionaires get these ideas about what they think is the right solution, and then they set up initiatives that they think will work, so then they’re spending other people’s money, too,” Villarosa says. “That’s one of the big problems that we want to see changed.”
Even so, Villarosa says she is encouraged that representatives of many of the donors on the Philanthropy 50 list have reached out to her organization and others and are actively working to deepen their support for racial equity and racial justice.
Robert Kissane, chairman of CCS Fundraising, which works with several long-established African American organizations, says considerable progress is happening “behind the scenes.”
“A number of major philanthropists are definitely in conversations about what they can do that would be impactful on this issue,” Kissane says.
Megan Ming Francis, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, says many donors, foundations, and corporations were appalled by George Floyd’s murder and wanted to do something in 2020 but never developed a vision for what they hoped to accomplish through their giving. For example, alternatives to policing were gaining support in the summer of 2020, but public-opinion polls show such enthusiasm has waned over the past 18 months. That makes it less likely that donors will provide big grants to experiment with alternatives.
“Big donors are aware of the pushback,” Ming Francis says. “They don’t want to fall too far out of step with public opinion.”
Still, some experts say the uber-wealthy seem out of touch with front-burner issues of concern to average Americans and unresponsive to what’s going on right now.
“Many people if asked, ‘What is our greatest social problem?’ would point to political division and the spread of misinformation,” says Michael Moody, a philanthropy professor at Grand Valley State University. “I’m not sure I see anything on the list that addresses that.”
Wealthier Americans have seen their net worth rise by 60 to 70 percent. It’s really surprising that giving hasn’t expanded more
Soskis says he’s surprised that few donors on this year’s list appear to have made large gifts to address the international health crisis caused by the pandemic.
“It suggests that these gifts are not reflective of contemporary crises but based on people’s longer-term gift habits,” Soskis says.
The growth in the number and sway of funder collaboratives has the potential eventually to help the ultrawealthy get closer to grassroots organizations, says Bridgespan’s Powell. A recent Bridgespan report charts the growth of these collaboratives, many of which focus on racial justice and are often led by people with deep subject-matter knowledge and personal experience. Examples include the Southern Reconstruction Fund, which seeks to bolster wealth creation and social mobility and improve health outcomes in cities in the South with large populations of people of color, and the Libra Foundation’s Democracy Frontlines Fund, which supports Black activists working to end systemic racism.
Last year Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife, Nicole Shanahan (No. 6), gave $70 million to Blue Meridian Partners, a donor collaborative that makes grants to innovative nonprofits that work to help people escape poverty.
Ultrawealthy donors are increasingly relying on collaboratives, Powell says, because fewer donors today are creating large, highly staffed foundations. Only a dozen of the roughly 170 American billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge have grant-making organizations with more than 50 staff members, the Bridgespan report found.
“Many donors don’t have the capacity to be doing this work,” Powell says. “Funder collaboratives are a really high-potential way for donors to get ideas — they’re a really bright spot in the landscape.”
Charities that in the past might have had a hard time winning the attention of billionaires because of their size or mission are increasingly gaining access through these intermediaries. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is supported by a donor collaborative housed within Borealis Philanthropy.
“The change makers that lead these movements have, at times, direct access to those donors now in ways that they haven’t before,” says Sampriti Ganguli, chief executive officer at the Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy-advising firm. “The donors, in addition to taking calls from major-gift officers, are also compelled by the narratives of the change makers.”
But as donor collaboratives and philanthropy consultants gain greater sway in decision making — Bridgespan, for example, is an adviser to MacKenzie Scott — the power imbalance in the nonprofit sector is merely shifting, not going away, says Ryan Schlegel, director of research at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
“I’m not the first person to raise questions about the implications of nonprofit consulting firms having that kind of power over those levels of resources,” Schlegel says. “It’s no different than the power wielded by the board of the Gates Foundation. The philanthropic sector is full of places where small groups of people have lots of control over money that is for the public good.”