As the world grappled with COVID-19, a recession and a racial reckoning, the ultrawealthy gave to a broader set of causes than ever before — bestowing multimillion-dollar gifts on food pantries, historically Black colleges and universities and organizations that serve the poor and the homeless, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual rankings of the 50 Americans who gave the most to charity last year.
Another cause that got outsize attention from billionaire philanthropists: Climate change. Jeff Bezos topped the list by donating $10 billion to launch the Bezos Earth Fund. Bezos, who last week announced he was stepping down as Amazon CEO to devote more time to philanthropy and other projects, also contributed $100 million to Feeding America, the organization that supplies more than 200 food banks.
No. 2 on the list was Bezos’s ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, who gave $5.7 billion in 2020 by asking community leaders to help identify 512 organizations for seven- and eight-figure gifts, including food banks, human-service organizations, and racial-justice charities.
Another donor who gave big to pandemic causes and racial-justice efforts was Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, who ranked No. 5. He put $1.1 billion into a fund that by year’s end had distributed at least $330 million to more than 100 nonprofits.
The financier Charles Schwab and his wife, Helen (No. 24), gave $65 million to address homelessness in San Francisco. Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings and wife, Patty Quillin (No. 14), gave $120 million for financial aid for students at historically Black colleges and universities. Michael Jordan, the basketball great (No. 31), pledged $50 million to racial and social-justice groups.
“When I look at the events of the last year, there was an awakening for the philanthropic sector,” says Nick Tedesco, president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. “Donors supported community-led efforts of recovery and resiliency, particularly those led by people of color.”
Giving experts say they think the trend toward broader giving is likely to persist.
“I don’t think this approach is just a 12-month moment that started with COVID and continued following George Floyd and is going to recede,” says Melissa Berman, president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which counsels donors around the world. “There has been change building among private donors.”
All told, the 50 biggest donors contributed $24.7 billion in 2020, compared with $15.8 billion in 2019. Still, those gifts come from a small share of the billionaire class. Only 23 of the people on the Forbes 400 gave enough to qualify for the list. Many of the multimillion-dollar donations came from people far less wealthy, like Gordon Rausser, a former dean of natural resources at the University of California at Berkeley.
The Chronicle’s rankings are based on the total amount philanthropists awarded in 2020. The information is based on extensive research with donors, their beneficiaries, and public records.
The No. 3 donor was Michael Bloomberg, who contributed $1.6 billion to arts, education, public health, and many other causes. Nike founder Phil and Penelope Knight were next, donating $1.4 billion, $900.7 million of it to their Knight Foundation.
The $1 billion-plus of giving by each of the top five on the Philanthropy 50 matches last year’s record. No more than three donors gave $1 billion or more in any of the previous years.
Sixteen donors in this year’s list — nearly a third of the Philanthropy 50 — made their fortunes in technology, and 20 of them live in California.
Joe Gebbia (No. 47), the 39-year-old co-founder of Airbnb, has seen his net worth shoot up to around $12 billion following his company’s initial public offering in December. During 2020, he gave $25 million to two San Francisco charities that are tackling homelessness and helping people who have suffered economically due to the pandemic.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate and believe that comes with the responsibility of giving back,” Gebbia says. “Where will I take it? The sky is the limit.”
At a time when tech billionaires’ wealth is compounding and many working people are still suffering from the pandemic’s fallout, philanthropic expectations have never been higher. David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, highlighted the disparate effects of the pandemic in a January interview on the PBS NewsHour.
“During the pandemic, billionaires made $5.2 billion in increased wealth per day,” he said. “All we are asking for is $5 billion to avert famine around the world. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Elon Musk, whose $180 billion fortune puts him neck-and-neck with Bezos for richest person in the world, is not on the Philanthropy 50. Musk has faced criticism for his meager lifetime donations, estimated in a recent Vox article at just 0.05 percent of his current net worth.
If small and midsize charities were the notable winners in 2020, does that make large universities the losers? Hardly. Colleges and universities received $2.2 billion from Philanthropy 50 donors in 2020.
But Benjamin Soskis, a research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, says the most striking change with this year’s Philanthropy 50 list is that it presents a plurality of options for giving.
“There’s a big difference between a hypothetical ‘Why didn’t you give to an HBCU instead of Harvard?’ and today’s list, where you can point to donors who actually did that.”
Maria Di Mento and Ben Gose are with The Chronicle of Philanthropy