Published: 05-10-2018

    What we can learn from our countries leading philanthropists

    The 2017 Philanthropy 50 – a list of the 50 most generous US based donors/philanthropists in 2017–was recently released. At first glance, the list may simply seem to be a fun insight into the lives of our country’s most wealthy and most generous. However, when you look beyond the figures and focus on the causes chosen by some of our country’s greatest minds, the list provides great insight into our world’s biggest challenges and greatest potential solutions.

    So who made the list?


    1. Bill and Melinda Gates $4.8 billion

    2. Mark Zuckerberg & Priscilla Chan $2 billion

    3. Michael and Susan Dell $1 billion

    4. Henry Hillman $850 million

    5. Michael Bloomberg $702 million

    6. Florence Irving $680 million

    7. Charles Butt $290 million

    8. John and Laura Arnold $285 million

    9. Pierre and Pam Omidyar $257.5 million

    10. Roy and Diana Vagelos $250 million


    The Leaderboard

    Billionaire pioneers in the tech industry led a near-record year of charitable giving by America’s superrich in 2017. Bill Gates and Melinda Gates claimed the No. 1 spot for the fourth time, thanks to the $4.8 billion they donated to their foundation.

    Collectively, this group of billionaire philanthropists gave away $14.7 billion — the largest total since 2008. It’s also the third-largest in the 18-year history of the survey.

    The median annual giving by the 50 most generous donors last year reached $97 million — nearly double what it was in 2000, the first year The Chronicle conducted its Philanthropy 50 analysis — even after adjusting for inflation.

    A Rising Generation of Tech Philanthropists

    The 2017 giving spree was fueled by huge donations from many relatively young major philanthropists from the technology industry. The top three each giving away at least $1 billion. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, who are both in their early 30s, gave away $2 billion in 2017 to their charitable foundation and donor-advised fund. Michael and Susan Dell, who are in their early 50s, donated $1 billion to their foundation.

    Altogether, 11 leaders from the tech industry made the list. Collectively, they accounted for $8.7 billion, or 60 percent, of Philanthropy 50 giving. The numbers suggest an acceleration of the shift of big-philanthropy’s center from Wall Street to the West Coast. The influence of tech leaders is greater even than what the Philanthropy 50 suggests as many of them pursue social good through limited-liability corporations or for-profit ventures.

    Large Donations are Widening the Philanthropic Divide

    The surge in big gifts comes at a time when average Americans are giving less. The decline in giving since the Great Recession has raised fears that the country’s economic divide is being replicated in philanthropy, with non-profits increasingly having to rely on the wealthy.

    “A larger and larger share of the philanthropic pie is coming from fewer and fewer donors”

    Aaron Dorfman, head of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

    At least some of 2017’s Philanthropy 50 gifts aim to help those on the other side of the economic divide. Charles Butt (No. 7), the Texas billionaire owner of a grocery-store chain, committed $280 million to improving education. The gifts will, among other things, pay for scholarships for would-be teachers and create a new institute to train public school administrators.

    “We live in a time when support and funding for the nation’s public schools is declining and faith in the system is eroding.”

    Charles Butt

    Roy Vagelos (No.10), former head of Merck pharmaceuticals, and his wife, Diana, earmarked $150 million of their $250 million commitment to Columbia University for scholarships to ease the debt load of medical-school students on financial aid.

    “This idea of giving to young people the kind of support that allowed us to pursue our own educations at Penn, Barnard, and Columbia has been a driving force in our lives for some time.”

    Roy Vagelos – former head of Merck Pharmaceuticals

    How the Wealthy are Giving

    It is insightful to observe how the young billionaires are giving. Of the 12 members of the Giving Pledge on the Philanthropy 50 list, seven gave directly to their own Foundations or donor-advised funds.

    The hands-on nature of today’s Philanthropy 50 list could be attributed to the majority of them having earned their wealth through hard work, innovation and smart business choices as opposed to being born into their wealth. For this reason, it is natural for them to continue this spirit of innovation and work ethic in their philanthropic endeavors. To these philanthropists, their social investments are only slightly different than their other investments. The only major difference being one yields financial benefits and the other yields human benefits.

    So, what are the causes and solutions our wealthiest philanthropists are invested in? The country’s four leading philanthropic couples agree that education and health are the crucial issues of our time, with all four tackling slightly different areas of both issues.


    The Gates Foundation – High school and post-secondary education

    Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan – Education reform and alternative Education systems

    Michael and Susan Dell – – College Graduation, Urban Education

    Laura and John Arnold Foundation – K-12 education and alternative education models


    The Gates Foundation – Global health and disease reduction

    Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan – Child health

    Michael and Susan Dell – – Youth Health and wellness

    Laura and John Arnold Foundation – The US Healthcare delivery systems

    As you continue down the Philanthropy 50 list, that focus is echoed by the majority of philanthropists who have identified youth – girls in particular, education and health as the issues where they feel their donations can have the biggest impact.

    Furthermore, the majority of top philanthropists are also heavily focused on data and analytics with many of them identifying research as one of their core philanthropic pillars. As the Linda and John

    Arnold Foundation states on their website when explaining their investment into Research Integrity:

    “When research is accurate, thorough, and accessible, it can have tremendously beneficial consequences for individuals and society.”

    The Linda and John Arnold Foundation Website

    Pierre and Pam Omidyar (No. 9) have taken the importance of research one step further. They have invested their wealth in the Omidyar Group – a think tank that takes a systems-based approach to tackling societies biggest challenges and from there, creates smaller organizations designed to combat these issues based off of their research. You can read more about their companies HERE.

    Rethinking Philanthropy

    Last year also saw some of America’s wealthiest public figures openly question how best to use their philanthropy:

    – Bill and Melinda Gates announced their foundation’s shift after 17 years of pursuing large-scale change in public education’s structure, teaching, and curriculum, to focus on supporting school networks.

    – Jeff Bezos announced in the summer of 2017, in a tweet, that he was developing a philanthropy strategy and asked for ideas “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” In January of this year, he gave $33 million to pay for college scholarships for “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants whose parents brought them to this country as children.

    This shift appears to signal a move away from simply funding programs and instead looking at ways to have a social impact on a systemic level. As banking heiress Agnes Gund (No.23) explains :

    “After a decade focused on expanding good ideas and programs the question now is: How do we expand but also change the system?”

    Philanthropy 50 vs Forbes 400

    Perhaps the most intriguing insight we can glean from the list for 2017 is that only 17 people on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans appear on this year’s Philanthropy 50. The most notable omission in 2017 would have to be Warren Buffett – the initiator and leader of the Giving Pledge.

    Buffett’s profound commitment to philanthropy aside, this could be seen as an indication that many of the wealthiest people in America aren’t big givers. We hope, however, that it is because some billionaires such as Buffett donate infrequently in very large amounts and others may give anonymously or choose not to disclose their charitable giving publicly.

    Either way we can hope that the younger philanthropists who are at the top of this year’s list will lead the way in encouraging others on the Forbes 400 list to take a hands-on and systemic approach to their philanthropy and truly commit to creating the social impact that is possible with their philanthropic investments.



    ‘Forbes 400’ and ‘Giving Pledge’ Billionaires Who Gave Big in 2017

    By Maria Di Mento

    America’s Superrich Made Near-Record Contributions to Charity in 2017

    By Maria Di Mento and Drew Lindsay

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