The Chat Room

In the Giving Mood

Rachael Larimore takes your questions about Slate’s annual roster of top philanthropists.

Slate Deputy Managing Editor Rachael Larimore chatted live on with readers about the Slate 60, our annual ranking of the previous year’s top philanthropists. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Rachael Larimore: Greetings, everyone. Thanks for joining me to chat about the Slate 60 and the state of philanthropy during these difficult financial times. I look forward to taking your questions.


New York City: Instead of simply encouraging more philanthropy, how about “responsible” philanthropy? Leona Helmsley left the bulk of her estate to her dog and for the care of “Dogs”? How does that help the human race or make the world we live in a better place?

Rachael Larimore: It would indeed be nice if there was a way to encourage the wealthy to steer their charitable giving to causes that were more “responsible.” Indeed, a few years back, Slate published an article with ideas on how to give away $1 million.

Leona Helmsley’s gift to her foundation to benefit dogs is not the first time this has come up. In 2002, there was a great deal of outcry because Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to Poetry Magazine.

I think there are a couple factors at play here. First, someone like Leona Helmsley, who had a reputation for being difficult, is not going to much care where people think she should leave her money. And secondly, everyone has a different definition of “responsible.” Some people think it’s giving to the poor, others think it’s important to give to education, yet others think that the arts make the world we live in a better place. You can also see political divides—surely liberals and conservatives have different ideas of what kind of giving is “responsible.”

For those who are upset that Helmsley left money for the care of dogs (and her dog, Trouble, received $2 million, not the $12 million originally reported), they can hope tha the foundation breaks with Hemlsley’s wishes and finds its own causes.


Washington, D.C.: Amid this recession, what types of nonprofits are going to see the biggest drops in donations for 2009? Could we see some nonprofits simply die out for lack of donations?

Rachael Larimore: Because we do this list annually, and won’t see the results of 2009’s giving until next year, it’s hard to say. One thing we noticed this year in preparing the Slate 60 is that donors seemed to go back to more traditional forms of philanthropy. A huge share of the charitable gifts went to education, health care (to build hospitals and fund research), and the arts. We did not see as much innovation on the list as we usually do–donors who have caught on to trends like “venture philanthropy” and newer ideas like microfinance.

As to whether nonprofits might die out, it’s certainly possible. Just yesterday it was reported that Brandeis is shuttering its art museum and selling off its art work because of budget shortfalls. Brandeis is one of the many institutions that has been hurt by the Bernie Madoff scandal, its president said.


Chicago: We are a non-profit organization for an orphaned metabolic disorder called galactosemia. Our group struggles to raise funds for research. The government does not fund research because this disorder is so rare. How do we get charitable contribution to our organization?

Rachael Larimore: I would suggest research, research, research. Here the Internet can be a valuable tool. Many foundations have a Web presence that alerts people to its goals and the kind of charity it emphasizes. If you can find a foundation that focuses not just on health-related giving, but one that cares about little-known diseases, they will be more responsive than foundations that give to cancer research, or general medical causes.

There are signs that the wealthy are taking up where the government leaves off. Two donors on this year’s Slate 60, Lorry Lokey and Lawrence Ellison, donated money to stem-cell research because they were concerned about the federal government’s limit on funding.


Washington, D.C.: Interesting that so many of last year’s donations came as a result of the giver dying. Didn’t Bill Gates’s big donations come after he realized it’s more satisfying to give while you’re still alive? (I seem to remember Buffett taught him that.) He seems to recognize that you can’t take it with you.

Rachael Larimore: That was one of the first things we noticed on the list, was the sheer number of bequests. I have to conclude that this is because of the recession. Without trying to sound flip or callous, the adage that “you can’t take it with you” rings true here. Living donors, meanwhile, seem to have been scared off, perhaps, by the flailing economy. Donors might have decided to wait until their portfolios recovered before giving away large sums, or they might have decided to make smaller gifts that didn’t qualify for our list.

I’m sure many of them do find it satisfying to give while they are alive, but the economic crisis has been frightening for everyone.

One note on Bill Gates. He has not made the list in recent years, but that does not mean that he’s stopped doing his important philanthropic work. A few years we changed the way we counted, and we no longer list gifts that are payments on previous pledges. Doing so results in double counting. If we did, you can imagine that Gates and Warren Buffett, who made an otherwordly pledge of $43 billion, mostly to the Gates Foundation, would be atop the list every year.


Slate 60: Is this really the 13th year? Can you describe a little about how it got started, the methodology, and any trends that have become clear during that time?

Rachael Larimore: Whew, quite a question. I’ll try to be brief. In Slate’s very first year, our founding editor, Michael Kinsley, read remarks from Ted Turner in which Turner suspected the wealthy of holding onto their wealth, rather than giving it away while they were alive, because they didn’t want to lose their spot on the Forbes 400 list. Kinsley thought Slate should play on that vanity and inspire the superwealthy to be competitive about giving money away, so he created the Slate 60.

The methodology has evolved greatly. Since Slate was hoping to inspire the living, for the first few years, we did not count bequests. And we counted only gifts, not pledges. The downside of the latter criteria caused us to avoid counting a huge pledge that Bill Gates used to get his foundation going.

From there on, we started counting bequests and pledges, so that we did not ignore some truly remarkable acts of philanthropy.

As for trends, there are some things that always hold true: People love to give to universities and hospitals and arts organizations. People love to have buildings named after themselves.

We’ve also witnessed and tracked the rise of “venture philanthropy”–giving modeled on the “venture capital” philosophy. The survivors of the various tech and dot-com bubbles have taken prominent places on our list, and they tend to be more innovative than some older, more traditional donors.

I hope that answers your question.


Central, N.J.: Where are the “largest” contributions the combined contributions of many “small” contributors?

Rachael Larimore: In terms of the Slate 60 we track gifts made by the largest contributors and focus on individuals, so all of our contributions are from single people and not many “small” contributors.

We do have donors that focus on making smaller contributions to many, many organizations. For example, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave away $235 million this year, but divvied it up among 1,200 different groups. He announces some of his recipients but not others. But he did say that some of his gifts went to Johns Hopkins for a children’s hospital, a group that supports cancer research, and a foundation that works to fight poverty.


Chicago: Would you happen know how what percentage goes to charities outside the country and how much benefits the non-profits in the U.S.?

Rachael Larimore: I don’t know, I’m afraid. In terms of the Slate 60, we track gifts made BY American donors, but while we can usually track down the amount of giving they’ve done, they are sometimes reticent to talk about all of the groups to whom they give money.

I did just find a story from 2007 that said Americans gave away $300 billion to charitable causes in 2006, and religious organizations were the top recipient, followed by education.

Interestingly, that story pointed out that Americans and the British give away the most, in comparision with GDP. But I can’t tell you how much of that goes overseas.


Rachael Larimore: I’d like to thank everyone for joining the chat today. A few closing thoughts.

One, while we can quibble about where donors send their money or wonder about their motivations, it’s important to remember that the amount of giving recorded on the Slate 60 is but a fraction of the charitable giving that Americans do each year, and that the generosity can be truly staggering.

As such, I always look forward to working on the Slate 60, to see what some of our “regulars” have been doing, charity-wise, for the past year, and to see what kinds of innovative ideas some of the younger billionaires have come up with.

Thanks for chatting today, and thanks for your interest in the Slate 60.