America’s biggest philanthropists cut their giving in half last year

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He became the world’s richest man last year and, finally, America’s biggest philanthropist.

Amazon AMZN, +2.72%   founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos topped the list of the country’s top 50 donors to charity in 2018, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a magazine that covers nonprofits.

Despite his estimated $134.7 billion wealth, Bezos and his wife had never before appeared on the list of top donors, said Chronicle staff writer Maria Di Mento. After years of relative silence about their charitable efforts, they claimed the top spot after announcing a $2 billion pledge to fight homelessness and improve preschool education.

‘There was very likely a great deal of uncertainty last year among donors about how the markets and other aspects of the economy were performing.’

—Chronicle of Philanthropy staff writer Maria Di Mento

Overall, however, Bezos and his fellow donors gave far less money to charity in 2018. Total giving among the “Philanthropy 50” amounted to $7.8 billion in 2018, roughly half the $14.7 billion given by the top 50 donors in 2017.

Here are the Chronicle’s top 10 donors of 2018:

Donor Amount Top Cause
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos  $2 billion homelessness and early education
Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg  $767 million arts, education and others
eBay EBAY, +1.83%   founder Pierre and Pam Omidyar  $392 million civic participation and others
Blackstone’s BX BX, +1.65%   Stephen Schwarzman  $390 million AI school at MIT and others
Microsoft’s MSFT, +1.40%   Steve and Connie Ballmer  $295 million economic mobility
Microsoft’s Paul Allen $261.4 million AI, medical research and others
Facebook’s FB, +0.42%   Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan  $213.6 million various
Former hedge fund manager John and Laura Arnold $204.3 million criminal justice reform and others
AlixPartners founder Jay Alix $200 million Mayo Clinic
Texas financier Edward Bass  $160 million Yale University museum renovations
Stock-market uncertainty could be fueling the decline in giving

Americans as a whole gave a record amount to charity in 2017, in part because of robust stock-market returns that year. There’s no clear reason for the big drop in giving among the biggest donors in 2018, Di Mento said, but market performance could certainly be a factor. “There was very likely a great deal of uncertainty last year among donors about how the markets and other aspects of the economy were performing,” she said.

See also: American donations to charity show widening gap between rich and poor

The list of top 50 donors includes titans of tech and finance. Many of their donations signaled a keen interest in the future. Much of the money was earmarked to research the effects of artificial intelligence, to preserve online privacy and shore up democracy.

The list of top 50 donors includes titans of tech and finance. Many of their donations signaled a keen interest in the future.

“A lot of people who seem to be very concerned about the future are directing significant portions of their giving to try to address things like AI, to make sure it will be used for good rather than bad,” Di Mento said.

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Among those was Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who gave $125 million before he died in October to create a new research program at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence that will advance AI’s “common sense” problem-solving capabilities.

More gifts for homelessness

Also notable on this year’s list: more high-profile gifts focused on human services like alleviating homelessness, most notably the Bezos pledge. Others included Salesforce CRM, +1.96%   CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne, whose more than $100 million in donations included $6 million to transform a hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood into housing for the homeless.

New criticisms of philanthropy

In the past, donors have been less public about addressing issues like homelessness, Di Mento said. “I think those problems have become much more apparent, and there’s been some criticism of the uber-wealthy and whether or not they should be stepping up for those less fortunate,” Di Mento said.

‘Generosity is not a substitute for justice, and this list, like so many similar lists, must be read with balance. Unfortunately extreme generosity is often evidence of profiting from an extremely unjust system.’

— Anand Giridharadas, author of ‘Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World’

Indeed, there’s been a spate of recent books critical of philanthropy, including David Callahan’s “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age,” Stanford professor Rob Reich’s “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better” and Anand Giridharadas’ “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”

When Giridharadas looks at lists like the Top 50 donors, he sees a catalog of people who represent “major systemic flaws,” in that they’ve built their fortunes in part by perpetuating inequality, he told MarketWatch. “The point is not that these are all bad people,” Giridharadas said. But their role in our social problems must be acknowledged, he argued. “Generosity is not a substitute for justice, and this list, like so many similar lists, must be read with balance. Unfortunately extreme generosity is often evidence of profiting from an extremely unjust system.”

Bezos, to name just one example, has been accused of exploiting Amazon’s workers. The company raised the minimum wage for all its employees to $15 an hour in 2018, a move Bezos said he hoped other companies would follow. Amazon and the Day One Fund did not respond to a request for comment.

Americans with the largest fortunes were not necessarily the biggest givers last year. “Although many of the people on the list are household names, not all are, and that is a sign that not all of America’s wealthiest are giving big sums to charity every year,” the Chronicle’s editors noted. In fact, “just 21 of the people on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans appear on this year’s Philanthropy 50; the rest are less affluent.” However, some donors keep their donations secret, so the Chronicle’s list doesn’t capture all the charitable giving that’s happening.

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