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Bill Gates joins 26 newcomers on list of 50 biggest donors

By MARIA DI MENTO and DREW LINDSAY, Chronicle of Philanthropy
Published: February 14, 2023, 1:48pm
2 Photos
FILE - Bill Gates speaks during the Global Fund's Seventh Replenishment Conference, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, in New York. As the ranks of America's super wealthy grow, the roster of major philanthropists is expanding to include not-so-typical megadonors -- among them, a professional clarinetist, a Ph.D. in meat science, and a lawyer who regularly argues before the U.S. Supreme Court.
FILE - Bill Gates speaks during the Global Fund's Seventh Replenishment Conference, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, in New York. As the ranks of America's super wealthy grow, the roster of major philanthropists is expanding to include not-so-typical megadonors -- among them, a professional clarinetist, a Ph.D. in meat science, and a lawyer who regularly argues before the U.S. Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) Photo Gallery

As the ranks of America’s super wealthy grow, the roster of major philanthropists is expanding to include not-so-typical megadonors — among them, a professional clarinetist, a Ph.D. in meat science, and a lawyer who regularly argues before the U.S. Supreme Court.

That’s according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy analysis of giving by the country’s 50 biggest donors in 2022. Twenty-six of the 50 are new to the Chronicle’s annual ranking, which dates to 2000. They include big names from business such as Airbnb’s Brian Chesky (who gave $100 million to the Obama Foundation), FedEx’s Fred Smith ($65 million to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation), and Roku founder Anthony Wood ($71.5 million to several charitable giving vehicles).

Also, Jacklyn Bezos, mother of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, made her debut on the list with her husband, Miguel. The two gave $710.5 million to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

Other Philanthropy 50 first-timers, however, lack the national profile, the Silicon Valley address, or Wall Street credentials that are commonplace in today’s philanthropy world, where such tech and finance titans as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffett set the tone.

The ranking’s newcomers include:

— Edward Avedisian, a retired Boston Pops clarinetist who amassed a fortune trading stocks on the side. Avedisian gave $100 million to Boston University before his death in December.

— David Frederick and his wife, Sophia Lynn, who made gifts totaling $40 million to the University of Pittsburgh and Oxford University in England. Frederick is an appellate attorney who’s argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court.

— Sisters Mary Bastian and Emily Markham, the last members of a multigenerational Utah farming and ranching family, who donated 100 acres of land worth $41.3 million to Utah State University.

— Gordon and Joyce Davis, who gave $44 million to Texas Tech, where Gordon — who holds a doctorate in meat science — once taught and coached the university’s meat-judging team to a national championship.

The ranking’s changing composition reflects in part the country’s skyrocketing wealth. More than 141,000 Americans have a net worth of $50 million or higher — nearly four times more than just a decade ago, according to the finance company Credit Suisse. Growth accelerated during the pandemic, with the number climbing 75% in just two years.

The rise of the super wealthy coincides with and fuels another trend: greater fundraising sophistication and the ambition to snare big gifts. Top-tier, high-profile institutions such as Boston University, the Obama Foundation, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art received individual donations of at least $10 million from Philanthropy 50 donors in 2022. But so did the Air Force Academy; McPherson, a small liberal-arts college in Kansas; and Samford, a Christian university in Alabama.

Altogether, half of the Philanthropy 50 made contributions to organizations that reported the donation as the largest in their history. Also, while big philanthropy is often criticized as being too focused on the coasts and urban areas, half of the 34 gifts to U.S. higher education went to institutions in the country’s interior, some to land-grant universities such as Oregon State, Purdue, and Utah State. The University of Pennsylvania was the lone Ivy League recipient.

The donors at the ranking’s pinnacle are fixtures in philanthropy. Gates tops the list in his 13th Philanthropy 50 appearance; the Microsoft mogul gave away $5.1 billion in 2022, more than a third of the $14 billion donated by the Philanthropy 50 collectively. The bulk of his gift was a transfer of stock to the foundation he runs with his former wife, Melinda French Gates. Michael Bloomberg — founder of the Bloomberg financial-news empire, a former mayor of New York, and an 18-time veteran of the ranking — finished second; he gave away $1.7 billion to causes that include the arts, education, environment, public health, and programs aimed at improving city governments globally.

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As in years past, men dominate the list of the biggest donors. There’s also only one person of color: Taiwanese American Jen-Hsun Huang, who debuted on the list with his wife, Lori, in a tie for No. 40.

(Novelist and high-profile philanthropist MacKenzie Scott is not in the ranking, though she has donated some $14 billion to charities since 2020. It’s likely that Scott made gifts to her donor-advised funds that would have earned her a spot in the ranking, but she and her representatives declined to provide information to the Chronicle. French Gates, another big-name donor, also did not share such information.)

Despite the new blood in the top tier of philanthropists, last year’s biggest donors hewed closely to decades-old conventions of charitable giving. At least 14 earmarked contributions to scholarships for high-school or college students — a type of gift that dates back at least 1,000 years.

Ten made donations of at least $10 million to support research on cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases that have stymied medicine — and attracted philanthropists hunting answers — for decades.

Some philanthropy observers see in these gifts a focus on the future born of the suddenness with which the pandemic and racial reckoning turned society upside down. “We had to throw away our strategic plan because none of it works anymore,” says Trista Harris, a former foundation leader who now runs FutureGood, a consultancy. Donors recognized “that there might be even bigger change around the corner, and it’s my responsibility to understand what those possibilities are.”

Others worry that the donors are not addressing the country’s biggest problems. Contributions by last year’s 50 biggest donors toward climate change mitigation and solutions, for instance, reached only $195 million — one-tenth of the more than $2 billion directed to scholarships and disease prevention. Only a handful of gifts aimed to close racial disparities.

“The default setting for the biggest donors still seems to be to steer away from addressing some of the thorniest societal challenges related, for example, to inequity, racism, and the future of our planet,” says Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

After the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 and resulting nationwide protests, a number of major philanthropists stepped forward to learn about racial justice and understand what they could do, says Crystal Hayling, executive director of the Libra Foundation, which is leading a $45 million effort to support small, Black-led racial justice organizations.

Now, Hayling says, there’s a reversion to the mean. “Conversation is moving back to a place that’s a little bit more comfortable for people of wealth. They say, ‘Let’s just talk about equal opportunity, job pipelines, and improving schools.’ Those things are important, but they can be slightly evasive of really addressing the issue of racial justice.”

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