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Bezoses and Bloomberg Top Chronicle List of the 50 Donors Who Gave the Most to Charity

Among 2018’s future-focused philanthropists (clockwise from left): Michael Bloomberg, Laura and John Arnold, Denny Sanford, Barbara and Ray Dalio, and Stephen Schwarzman.
Among 2018’s future-focused philanthropists (clockwise from left): Michael Bloomberg, Laura and John Arnold, Denny Sanford, Barbara and Ray Dalio, and Stephen Schwarzman.

Donors on the Philanthropy 50, the Chronicle’s annual list of the people who gave the most to charity, contributed a total of more than $7.8 billion last year, a steep drop from the $14.7 billion the top 50 donors gave in 2017.

Topping the list are Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos, who gave $2 billion primarily to help struggling families, in a donation announced a few months before they made their plans to divorce public. They were followed by Michael Bloomberg, who gave $767 million for the arts, education, the environment, health, and other causes.

Pierre and Pam Omidyar, who accumulated their fortune from founding eBay, landed at No. 3, giving $392 million to nonprofits that seek to promote democracy, citizen activism, and an array of other causes.

Among the new players on the list are two young entrepreneurs from the tech industry: Evan Williams (No. 20), who made his fortune from Twitter, and his wife, Sara, put more than $100 million into their family foundation, which supports schools and other efforts to prepare young people for the future.

Brian Acton (tied for No. 35), the WhatsApp founder who ranks No. 215 on the Forbes list of the wealthiest people in America, donated $50 million to start a charity that develops cryptography with the goal of making private communication accessible and ubiquitous.

Another technology guru, Craig Newmark, also debuted on the list, at No. 11, by providing nearly $144 million, with several big donations to nonprofits that produce news and promote journalism education.

Wealthiest Not the Biggest Givers

Although many of the people on the list are household names, not all are, and that is a sign that not all of America’s wealthiest are giving big sums to charity every year. Just 21 of the people on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans appear on this year’s Philanthropy 50; the rest are less affluent.

More details about all the donors on the new list, including information about their giving priorities, a breakdown of their contributions, and the sources of their wealth, are available in the Chronicle’s exclusive interactive database.

The Chronicle list is based on the total amount that people gave to charitable causes in the past year.

A Focus on the Future

Perhaps the most striking feature in this year’s giving was the emphasis on the future that many of the big donors are placing. Many of the donors are supporting work that advances artificial intelligence or other advances in technology.

One of the philanthropists most concerned about the future is Stephen Schwarzman (No. 4), who says he hopes to start an arms race among universities to establish the United States as the world leader in artificial intelligence. He felt so strongly about that goal that he gave $350 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for artificial intelligence studies.

Not all philanthropy experts are wowed by the focus on the future among big donors. Some critics say those efforts often lack accountability and transparency.

Giving Faster

Meanwhile, Virginia Esposito, an expert in family foundations, notes that a growing number of America’s biggest donors are trying to give their money while they are alive, rather than setting up institutions that last forever.

While some of that interest in giving fast has been prompted by the work Bill and Melinda Gates have done, along with Warren Buffett, to persuade America’s billionaires to commit at least half their wealth to charity, not many of the biggest donors have made that promise.

A cross-check of the Chronicle’s data with the list of Americans who signed the Giving Pledge created by Buffett and the Gateses reveals that 14 of those individuals or couples landed a spot on the Philanthropy 50. Topping that list was Bloomberg and the Omidyars.

Meanwhile, some of the nation’s biggest philanthropists who have appeared on the list over the years died in the past year.

Seattle tech pioneer Paul Allen, whose giving before his death in October placed him at No. 6 in our latest rankings, Philadelphia businessman Gerry Lenfest, and private-equity titan Pete Peterson couldn’t have been more different in style and personality. But they shared a forward-looking, no-holds-barred approach to philanthropy.

— Maria Di Mento

A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 12, 2019 issue.