Ted Turner always got a buzz from giving. I had breakfast with him once in a sedate Washington hotel, and he explained how charity could juice him. He’d made his first big donation back in the 1980s, and his hand had trembled uncontrollably as he signed away his chances of becoming the world’s richest man. But having given money away once, he found he wanted to give more; charity became compulsive. As Turner explained this, he yelled and waved his arms around for emphasis, alarming the sleepy breakfasters at nearby tables. Giving could be an addiction, like alcohol or drugs, Turner proclaimed. “Like sex!” he roared enthusiastically.
Turner worried that other plutocrats might not lose their virginity. They were too obsessed with clawing their way up the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans to discover charity’s delights; they needed some kind of spur to force a shift in their priorities. Hence Turner’s suggestion, in an interview with Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, that someone create a list of philanthropic donors. A list means a competition; and a competition means winners; and the prospect of winning is a certain magnate magnet. In 1996, this magazine responded with its first Slate 60 list. One decade on, here is the 10th one.
Turner’s hunch may have been right: Whether by coincidence or not, philanthropy has blossomed since Slate’s list was created. In 1996 the top donor gave away $100 million, or $121 million in 2005 dollars. But last year’s top donor, Cordelia Scaife May, gave away $404 million, and the list (with 63 donors, counting ties) totaled $4.3 billion. Admittedly, the criteria for including donations have been relaxed, as explained here. One can see Turner’s hunch playing out in a different way as well: in the behavior of individual moguls. Back in 1996, Bill Gates wrote that: “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.” But two years later Gates and his immediate family gave away $33 million, and soon that donation adrenaline was coursing through his veins; his pulse quickened and his breath grew short; and every competitive fiber in his exceedingly competitive being wanted to be the best philanthropist possible. By 2000, Gates had emerged as the world’s most generous philanthropist.
Giving while still relatively young was not the way old-timers did it. John D. Rockefeller, America’s pre-eminent philanthropist until Gates gave four times more than him in inflation-adjusted terms, waited until just before his 70th birthday before making his first blockbuster donation. But Turner was barely 60, and still behaving like a man of 30, when he pledged $1 billion to rescue the United Nations from debt and disrepute in 1999. Gates was 45 when he and his wife set up the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
You can trace the influence of these role models in the Slate 60, though not right at the top of it. Aside from Gates himself, who comes second in the new list, the top slots are occupied by donors of, or in some cases beyond, Rockefellerish maturity. As we have seen, the year’s biggest donation came from a bequest left by a 76-year-old heiress; slots three to five went to donors in their 70s; the sixth went to David Rockefeller, who continues a fine family tradition by giving at the age of 90. But after that some youthfulness creeps in. The No. 8 slot goes to Pierre Omidyar, the 38-year-old co-founder of eBay, and his wife, who gave away $134 million. Oprah Winfrey is giving generously of her fortune at the age of 52. Paul Allen and Charles Simonyi, Microsoft billionaires both, have also acquired the philanthropic habit when still in their 50s.
The most interesting philanthropy harks back, again, to Ted Turner. The loud man started out by making grants to schools that he and his sons had attended, then he moved on to the environment and to charities in Atlanta, CNN’s hometown. But his famous plunge—a plunge almost as bold as the idea of a 24-hour news network—was his pledge for the United Nations. That pledge supported a foundation, set up in 1999, that financed a successful lobbying effort to end Congress’ refusal to pay U.N. dues and generally pressed to turn the United States into a better U.N. member. Like George Soros, whose Open Society Institute championed political opening in ex-Communist Europe as well as causes such as the decriminalization of drugs in the United States, Turner was out to change the world with his philanthropy. No wonder he got excited.
The same goes for several other big donors on the new list. The top benefactor left most of her wealth to a sort of Closed Society Institute—a foundation that promotes strict limits on immigration (and, to be fair, many environmental causes). The Gates Foundation is organized around a list of the top killer diseases in the poor world; it aims to battle each of them in turn, so that the 25-year gap in life expectancy between the poor and the rich world can be reduced decisively. Pierre Omidyar and his wife donated $103 million of eBay wealth to Tufts University, which they attended. But they stipulated that the money had to be invested in micro-lending projects in the poor world, so blending a conventional gesture of gratitude with a shot of change-the-world ambition.
How much can such charities achieve? Compared with public-sector institutions, their pockets are shallow. Even the Gates Foundation, whose endowment supports a bit over $1 billion in annual grants, looks small next to an organization like the World Bank, which lends $20 billion a year, or to U.S. development aid programs, which give out almost as much as the World Bank does. But charities can nonetheless be path-breaking. Unlike public-sector institutions, they are free of deadening political oversight; unlike private companies, they are free of obligation to the bottom line. Economists think a lot about how market mechanisms can correct the failures of sluggish government and how government can correct the failures of markets. Dynamic charitable foundations have a shot at correcting both failures simultaneously.
Consider the conundrum of medicines for poor countries. Profit-seeking companies don’t make medicines for people with near-zero consumer power. But the clunky public sector can’t do much better, because government budgets are fickle: One year they may stress AIDS drugs, but the next year they’re liable to switch focus to democracy building or the avian flu virus. As a result, governments have failed to create incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in drug discovery for poor countries, or even in manufacturing capacity for remedies that have already been invented. Both private and public sector have proved unequal to the challenge.
Then along comes the Gates Foundation. It has plunked down a total of $1.5 billion to buy vaccines, enough to tell manufacturers that if they invest in production they can be sure to find a buyer. Companies have duly responded: The ranks of big vaccine manufacturers quickly jumped from three to 12 after the first big grant, seven years ago. At its best, philanthropy blends money with risk-taking creativity. Some future contributor to Slate will look back at the pledges on this year’s list and determine which had the most impact. But there is another side to philanthropy as well: The sheer act of giving has a moral power, especially when done in relative obscurity. Who had heard of K. Raymond Clark, a Chicago lawyer who left $29 million to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Or of Oscar Boonshoft, an airforce engineer who took up commodities investing in retirement, and who gave nearly as much to Wright State University’s School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio? In an era of rising inequality, in which an inordinate share of the fruits of economic growth flow to the very top, it’s good to be reminded that individual fortunes frequently turn out to have inspiring social purpose.
Slate would like to thank the Chronicle of Philanthropy, especially Maria Di Mento, who researched the list and wrote the biographical vignettes, Heather Joslyn, who edited the list, and Marty Michaels, who assisted Joslyn.