Rupert Murdoch and Philanthropy: Will a Legendary "Scrooge" Change his Ways?

One of the things we’re really interested in here is dynastic wealth. Specifically, how do family philanthropic legacies evolve from generation to generation?

That question has been on our minds as we look at certain vast, philanthropically untapped fortunes, like the $14.7 billion pile Rupert Murdoch is sitting on. But before saying more about what Murdoch, and his children will do with that money, consider the cases of two other iconic family fortunes, those of the Rockefellers and the Buffetts.

There are numerous foundations and institutions that bear the Rockefeller name. The oldest, the Rockefeller Foundation, is currently chaired by the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller’s great grandson. In addition to keeping their family’s legacy foundations going, many of the Rockefellers have started their own charitable organizations in order to leave their own personal legacies. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, already the largest charity to come out of the third Rockefeller generation, is set to receive a big boost in the form of a $225 million bequest from David Rockefeller, the last surviving brother.  

Related: Why So Many People Are Waiting or David Rockefeller to Die

The Buffetts’ wealth is newer, of course, but the desire of Warren Buffett and his late wife, Susan, to give back certainly rubbed off on their children. What’s been really interesting, however, is that though Buffett himself has been one of the most hands-off philanthropists we’ve ever seen, he set his three children up to become career philanthropists with multi-billion-dollar gifts to each of their foundations. 

This sort of passing of the philanthropic torch occurs in the entertainment sector as well. For instance, Michael Eisner's children are deeply involved in the family foundation and Shari Redstone, Sumner's daughter, is strongly committed to philanthropy, just like her father. 

But if the apple usually doesn’t fall too far from the tree, there are a few cases that leave us scratching our heads. Like Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch started out in the media business, thanks to his parents’ chain of regional newspapers in Australia, which he gradually expanded into a global empire. And while his parents never amassed wealth on the scale that Rupert did, his mother’s career in philanthropy spanned an astounding eight decades, right up until her death in 2012, at the age of 103. Known primarily for her efforts in children’s health and preventing animal cruelty, her charitable work in Australia and internationally earned her an appointment as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1963.

Rupert, however, has long been criticized for being something of a Scrooge. Reporting abounds about how loath he is to part with his money, and there are even a couple of claims that he considers those who give publicly to be phonies—even those like his mother, who do so with minimal fanfare.

One of Murdoch's most recent, and most vocal critics has been Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist Dick Smith, who challenged Murdoch to set up a $1 billion foundation in honor of his mother. The challenge was issued publicly, as well as in a direct letter to Murdoch, to which Murdoch responded that he would be terminating further communication, citing Smith’s “insulting remarks about our newspaper front pages.”

While his companies do practice some corporate giving, the largest donation on record from Murdoch himself appears to be a $1 million gift in memory of Milly Dowler—a donation that would never have been made had one of Murdoch’s news outlets not been caught hacking into the cellular account of the murdered teenager. There was also a $2 million donation to Rick Warren’s PEACE Coalition, but that’s a religious organization, not a charity. In keeping with the religious theme, he gave $100,000 to Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation a couple years ago as well.

Murdoch does have a foundation in his name, but it holds no assets, and hasn’t made a grant since 2008. In the three years before that, the foundation did $6 million in giving, so it would seem his philanthropy is going the wrong direction. On the other hand, he recently laid out $57 million for a penthouse in Manhattan. 

There is some good news, though. Murdoch's son James seems to be taking more after his grandmother than his father. In 2013, James and his wife Kathryn, who works for the Clinton Climate Initiative, and may well be driving much of the couple’s philanthropy, started the Quadrivium Foundation with an initial endowment of $10 million. The organization has already made a handful of grants in health, community development, women’s empowerment, and the environment. Hollywood Reporter also named Murdoch one of the industry’s top givers for 2014, citing his work with the Ghetto Film School. (See JamesMurdoch's IP Profile)

Now, of course, James has had his own image problems lately. But never mind about all that. What matters is that he and wife have emerged as serious and thoughtful philanthropists. 

Sarah Murdoch, the wife of Rupert’s other son, Lachlan, is also an active philanthropist in Australia, supporting the country’s National Breast Cancer Foundation, and serving as a spokesperson for the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, named after Dame Elizabeth.

So while the philanthropic gene may have skipped a generation, here's a prediction: A decent slice of Rupert Murdoch’s fortune will eventually go to charitable causes down the line, once he's no longer around and his heirs are calling the shots. 

On the other hand, who knows? Many billionaires turn to philanthropy only after they've slowed down at work, which Murdoch has yet to do, even though he's now in his 80s. But if he does ease up and then lives as long as his mother, there's still time for him to focus on establishing a philanthropic legacy. 

See Rupert Murdoch's IP Profile