Meet the 9 Most Powerful Couples in U.S. Philanthropy

No matter who makes the money, most wealthy couples share power when it comes to giving it away. And the more we dig into today's mega-philanthropy, the more we find couples who have formed deeply involved partnerships as they spend millions of dollars to tackle major challenges. 

It's kind of fascinating when a marriage evolves in this way, and how vast wealth mixes with big issues and, in some cases, complex philanthropic organizations that operate worldwide. While it's hard for outsiders to ever know what really goes on in a couple's relationship or what gets discussed and decided behind the veil of marital privacy, the duos we write about here have public track records that tell a lot about how they operate. 

We've written about power before as a useful metric for examining philanthropy because it can be roughly measured, as opposed to impact or influence, which are murkier. In February, we published a list of the fifteen most powerful women in U.S. philanthropy, and some of the women on that list also appear here. 

To make this list, a couple needed to meet one or more of the following criteria: (A) They directly control a boatload of money; (B) They're actively deploying that money for philanthropic ends; and (C) They're doing their giving together.

So without further adieu, here are the 9 most powerful couples in U.S. philanthropy. 

1. Bill and Melinda Gates

The Gateses top the list not just because of the vast wealth they command, but because they are each influential leaders in philanthropy in their own rights, with a huge footprints in several different issue areas. As for the wealth, there's more money here than many people realize: Over $40 billion in their foundation's endowment, and another $79 billion in invested capital that will eventually be deployed for giving. That's nearly $120 billion. So for all their philanthropy so far, it's likely that Bill and Melinda will be engaged in even larger scale giving in coming years. (See full IP's profiles of Bill and Melinda.)

2. Pam and Pierre Omidyar

We've called Omidyar philanthropy an "archipelago," because there are so many separate islands of activity. And while the couple have jointly built up their philanthropy drawing on Pierre's vast eBay fortune (now $8.4 billion), Pam drives some of the funding and Pierre runs other parts. Pam is more hands-on than Pierre when it comes to Humanity United, which works on peace and human rights. She serves as the board chair of that outfit, and she's also the founder and chair of HopeLab, which uses technology to improve human health and well-being. Meanwhile, Pierre has taken point in expanding the couple's giving into journalism with First Look Media and in strengthening U.S. democracy, with the Democracy Fund. The couple jointly run the Omidyar Network, but Pierre is more closely associated with its signature work on microfinance. (See IP's full profiles of Pam and Pierre.)

3. James and Marilyn Simons

When Jim Simons was still focused full time on building his incredibly lucrative hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, Marilynwho has a PhD in economicswas the one who created the family foundation in the 1990s and built it into a powerhouse funder in science. Jim is now less involved in business and more active in philanthropy, but Marilyn remains the hands-on president of the Simons Foundation, which has a huge footprint in basic science research, while also being a major player in life sciences and autism research. The foundation recently expanded into ocean research, and all signs point to even bigger things to come, since Jim Simons is worth $12 billion and the couple have signed the Giving Pledge. The Simons Foundation paid out $178 million in grants in 2013 and ended the year with $2.1 billion in assets. This is a big operation. (See full IP's profiles of James and Marilyn.)

4. John and Laura Arnold

John Arnold closed his hedge fund in 2012 to focus full-time on philanthropy, and both Arnolds are closely involved in making philanthropic decisions. Few funders are more interesting to watch right now than the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which makes big bets on big ideaslike cost-free open source college textbooks and improving the quality of science research. Because both Arnolds are totally hands-on, the foundation has been able to give away over $260 million in the past four years with a minimal amount of staff and administrative overhead. And as young Giving Pledgers with $3 billion in assets, they're really just getting going. (See full IP's profiles of John and Laura.)

5. Jennifer and Peter Buffett

As president of the couple's NoVo Foundation, Jennifer Buffett is the more engaged funder of the two, while Peter has a music career. But Peter is co-chair of the foundation and they make all key decisions together. Their philanthropy has been widely lauded for its focus on systemic change and for being ahead of the curvefor example, NoVo's early work on empowering girls. Peter caused a stir with his New York Times op-ed that critiqued philanthropy as a self-congratulatory sector which too often failed to achieve real change. And much bigger giving seems certain, as the foundation grows significantly with new infusions of Berkshire Hathaway stock from Warren Buffett and the climbing value of those shares. The NoVo Foundation may well end up with over $3 billion in assets. 

6. Michael and Susan Dell

Computer entrepreneur Michael Dell is one of the richest people in U.S., with a net worth of $19 billion. Both Dells have long been deeply involved in philanthropy, but it is Susan, by many accounts, who's been the leader in building up the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation since 1999, and the foundation has now made grant commitments of around $1 billion. The foundation is a substantial operation, funding mainly in the United States, India, and South Africa, working on education, development, and health. The Dells have been leaders in pushing for results-oriented grantmaking and, more recently, have been moving into impact investing with some big bets. Their foundation ended 2012 with around $800 million in assets and gave away $100 million that year. (See IP's full profiles of Michael and Susan.)

7. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg

The Zuckerberg/Chan partnership is a bit of a black box, since Priscilla Chana pediatrician, keeps a very low profile and the couple doesn't talk publicly much about their philanthropy. But here's what we do know: They have made two big gifts of Facebook stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to establish a donor-advised fund that now likely holds around $2.5 billion in assets, thanks to the rising value of those shares. And they have a small, staffed operation, Startup:Education, managing their grantmaking, largely focused on education. But the couple also made a gift recently for healthcare, citing Priscilla's first-hand concerns in this area. Their biggest investment to date has been a recent $120 million commitment to improving Bay Area schools. (See IP's full profiles of Priscilla and Mark.)

8. Lynne and Marc Benioff

Software entrepreneur Marc Benioff became a leader in corporate philanthropy with the 1/1/1 model his company, Salesforce.com, adopted: Giving away 1 percent of profits, 1 percent of equity, and 1 percent of employee time in community service. But Benioff has also sought to rally the tech community behind anti-poverty efforts in the Bay Area. Lynne, meanwhile, has led the couple's giving to improve healthcare, an issue she became involved in a result of her hospitalization during a difficult pregnancy. The couple has committed over $200 million to the UCSF Medical Center and Oakland Hospital, but their expansive vision includes improving children and maternal health worldwide. Given that Benioff's net worth stands as $3.2 billion and the couple has signed the Giving Pledge, bigger things surely lie ahead. (See IP's full profiles of Lynne and Marc.)

9. Barbara and Ray Dalio

This couple has come onto our radar more recently, and for good reasons. Ray Dalio is the second wealthiest guy in the hedge fund business (after George Soros), with a $15.2 billion fortune. And he's been pumping more of his money into the Dalio Foundation, which ended 2012 with nearly $600 million assets. It gave out $29 million that year. Dalio is one of the biggest givers in the small niche of meditation, which he credits with changing his life, and he's also passionate about the environment. Barbara is keenly focused on education, and the foundation has made a number of major gifts in this area. What's striking in the couple's giving is the large number of grants going to organizations in a number of issue areas, all made through a family foundation with barely any staffsuggesting a very hands-on role for the couple. (See IP's profile of Ray Dalio and our closer look at the Dalio Foundation's giving.) 

BONUS - Most Powerful Ex-Couple: Susie Buffett and Allen Greenberg

Susie Buffett and Allen Greenberg divorced amiably many years ago, but are still joined at the hip through their leadership of the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (named after Susie's mom and Warren's late wife), which gave away $367.1 million in 2012. That total put it well ahead of such brand-name biggies as Robert Wood Johnson, Kellogg, Mellon, and Packard. Greenberg is the executive director of the foundation, the largest private funder of reproductive health worldwide, while Susie is the board chair. With new infusions of Berkshire Hathaway stock from Warren Buffett, the foundation will likely soon pass Ford in the scope of its annual funding, if it hasn't already. (Read our dive into this secretive place.) 

Other Couples We're Watching

Of course, there are many other couples who are crazily rich and deeply involved in philanthropy. A few others we're tracking, with links to profiles we've written, include: Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, who've tapped his large Facebook fortune to create a new foundation, Good Ventures, that's only recently gotten up and running. Jean and Steve Case created the Case Foundation back in 1997, and are now veteran leaders in philanthropy, although Jean far more so than Steve. Joan and Sandy Weill have given away a large fortune, with Joan taking the lead as a well-known power player in New York City philanthropy and beyond. Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen and Marc Andreessen, are deeply plugged into tech philanthropy, with Laura a nationally known thought leader on giving. 

And there are still other couples we could mention, too. There's a lot of money out there and, more than ever, many wealthy couples are focused on just what to do with it all.