There are numbers that help put Warren Buffett’s remarkable $43.5 billion charitable pledge of 2006 in perspective. It’s close to the GDP of Slovakia. It’s about the market value of McDonald’s. And one comparative figure is especially relevant as we present our annual list of the top donors in the United States: Buffett’s boffo moment nearly equals the total donations recorded in the Slate 60 for the previous six years combined—$44.9 billion.
And so the second decade of the Slate 60 gets off to a roaring start. (Read a history of the list’s first 10 years.) Gifts on the 2006 list total a record $50.5 billion, with $43.6 billion in pledges and just under $7 billion in paid gifts. To appear on the list, donors had to pony up at least $30 million to their favorite cause or causes, the highest cutoff since we started keeping track.
Buffett’s donation, $36.1 billion of which goes to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was already the nation’s largest private charity, has some calling this a “golden age” of philanthropy, hearkening back to the charitable work of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Mellons in the early 20th century. (Disclosure: Buffett and Melinda Gates sit on the board of the Washington Post Co., which owns Slate.) To keep abreast of this trend, Slate has placed new emphasis on its philanthropy coverage. In the past year, we’ve studied venture philanthropy, offered a road map for aspiring givers, and suggested ways to give away a million bucks. In addition, Slate in November co-hosted the Slate 60 Conference on Innovative Philanthropy with the William J. Clinton Foundation and the Clinton School of Public service. This week, we discuss making philanthropy cool and foundations better loved.
There are a few changes to the Slate 60 itself worth noting. For the first time, the feature includes a searchable database.You can sort by name, recipient, or source of wealth to reveal, for example, that the aforementioned Gateses have made the Slate 60 eight times. They don’t show up this year because of another change, to the criteria used to compile the list. In the early years, the list counted only paid gifts. Starting with the 2001 list, both pledges and gifts were counted. This year’s list continues to feature both pledges and gifts. But to avoid counting the same gift twice, it excludes gifts that are payments on previous pledges.
Content-wise, though, this installment is familiar. As in past years, eponymous foundations, hospitals and medical research, and institutions of higher learning were favorite donor targets. Stanford University alone racked up more than $360 million in gifts and pledges.
There are also plenty of familiar names among the givers. Serial donors include Eli and Edythe Broad, who make their eighth appearance, this year for their $137.6 million gift to the Broad Foundation, which supports medical and scientific research and efforts to improve public education, among other causes; and four-time vet Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey made her largest combined contribution to date, $50 million to her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation (for construction and operating costs at the school for girls she established in South Africa) and $8.3 million to Oprah’s Angel Network, a charity she started to encourage others to give.
Successful investing paid off for a trio of donors who bequeathed large estates. Mary Joan Palevsky left the bulk of her $212.8 million estate to the California Community Foundation. Her wealth began with a $40 million divorce settlement she received in 1968. Hector and Doris Di Stefano left $264 million to eight different charities, with the bulk of their wealth coming from UPS stock that Doris inherited from her father. Similarly, Eugenia Dodson parlayed a $200,000 inheritance from her husband in 1949 into a $35.6 million estate, which she bequeathed to a diabetes research group and the University of Miami.
Two couples on the list—eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam; and John and Jaque Weberg—have donated money to microfinance, or helping the poor acquire loans and other financial services. It’s a cause that has been around since the 1970s but garnered more attention and support in recent years. Part of the Omidyars’ $62.7 million gift will go to the Boulder Institute of Microfinance, while a portion of the Webergs’ $50 million gift will help establish a bank in Malawi to provide business loans to the poor.
The Slate 60 began when our founding editor, Michael Kinsley, acted on Ted Turner’s suggestion, in an interview with Maureen Dowd, to create a list of charitable contributions that would rival the Forbes 400 for the attention of the superwealthy. We’re not there yet. But we like the comparison made by Mayor Michael Bloomberg (No. 9 this year, with $165 million to smoking cessation and other causes) at November’s Slate 60 conference. “There’s the U.S. News and World Report’s 20 best American leaders, CNNs 10 biggest news stories, Time magazine’s Person of the Year, and the issue I am waiting for: People magazine’s top 10 sexiest mayors,” Bloomberg said. “All kidding aside, I’m in much better company being in the Slate 60.”
For the seventh year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy helpfully put together the list of gifts and pledges. Slate would like to thank Maria Di Mento, who compiled the list with the assistance of Noelle Barton, Heather Joslyn, Sam Kean, Nicole Lewis, and Ian Wilhelm.