Last August, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote a column about Ted Turner, in which Turner complained about the nefarious effects of the Forbes 400–the business magazine’s annual list of the richest Americans. “That list is destroying our country,” Turner told Dowd. Why? Because it discourages rich people from giving their money to charity, for fear they will slip down, or even off, the list. Turner suggested that someone start a list of the most generous Americans and encourage plutocrats to compete that way.
SLATE decided to take up Turner’s challenge, and enlisted the help of Ann Castle, former research director of the Harvard Development Office, who has been informally keeping a file of publicly announced large charitable contributions. We hope the “SLATE 60” will become an annual feature, and we hope it will have the effect Turner predicts.
A few caveats. This list is a work in progress, and (like the Forbes 400 in its early days) it undoubtedly misses some who are entitled to be on it. It is derived entirely from public sources: newspapers, magazines, press releases, and so on. Two especially useful sources are the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Web page of the Foundation Center. The list doesn’t count anonymous gifts, of which there are many. Twelve known anonymous gifts would have made the top 60 in 1996 if the donors were named. Other large gifts are doubly anonymous: The donor doesn’t even want the fact of the gift publicized.
Furthermore, 1996 isn’t over yet. This list covers known gifts through the end of November, but there is still time for the Christmas spirit–or the competitive spirit–to propel someone onto, or higher up, the list. If you know of someone we’ve missed, or of late-in-the-year gifts, please let us know at email@example.com. We plan to keep the list live on our site, and to update it when new information arrives. We’ll also report any major corrections or additions in “Readme.”
There are definitional issues. Where the same person is known to have given more than one gift of over $1 million, we have consolidated them to determine that person’s rank. (But, it’s conceivable that many smaller gifts could put someone on the list who isn’t there currently.) On the other hand, where the particulars are not available, we have not disaggregated joint gifts by more than one person (such as $42 million given to Bard College by three trustees). You and 50,000 friends could sneak onto this year’s list by giving a joint gift of $100 each. A joint gift by a married couple or a family is also considered one gift.
The list doesn’t include corporate contributions, even where one person or family owns all, or a large part of, the corporate stock. It does not include gifts from estates. It does include pledges, even if they are going to be fulfilled over several years. (Often, these details are not publicly revealed.)
Personal or family foundations create special problems. The list does not include gifts to create or add to a family foundation, where the money is still under family control. Under different rules, No. 1 on the list for 1996 would be the family of Jay Van Andel, co-founder of Amway. This year, the family created and endowed the Van Andel Institute for Education and Medical Research, to be headed by Van Andel’s son David. The amount of money involved is unknown, but the foundation is expected to be worth several billion dollars ultimately. On the other hand, the list does include gifts from a personal or family foundation, when such gifts are publicized as being from an individual. But often, they are not. For example, the Perot Foundation–funded entirely by Ross Perot–gave $23.3 million this year to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Finally, it should be noted that the absolute size of gifts is a flawed measure of “generosity,” which properly should be indexed by income or total wealth. That is a project we may take up in the future. Cumulative lifetime giving might also be a better measure than giving in any particular year. Turner, for example, is not on this year’s list, but, according to Dowd, he gave away $200 million two years ago. Other interesting names on the list are the novelist James Michener, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, and Netscape CEO James Barksdale. But most of the SLATE 60 are people you’ve never heard of. (Should some gifts count more than others? See Jodie T. Allen’s commentary.)
You only had to give away $100 million to top this year’s list. It took $5 million to make it onto the list at all. If the list has the effect Turner predicts, those numbers should rise.
People will naturally be wondering about Bill Gates. Gates and Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s top two executives, jointly gave $25 million to Harvard this year. Gates and his wife, Melinda French Gates, gave $12 million to the University of Washington. (Gates owns about a quarter of Microsoft, which gave $11 million in cash and $62 million in software to charities during fiscal 1996.) In a newspaper column in October, Gates wrote that he (not Microsoft) has given away $270 million in the past few years, and added:
Giving away money effectively is almost as hard as earning it in the first place. I’m many years away from wanting to divert a lot of my attention in that direction. … One thing is for sure. I won’t leave a lot of money to my heirs, because I don’t think it would be good for them.