More than any other industry, the tech sector has the ability to create multimillionaires, and even billionaires, almost overnight. We saw this most recently when WhatsApp founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton sold their company to Facebook, netting them $6.8 billion and $3.6 billion, respectively. And while it may take some time before we get a good idea of what they plan to do with their newfound wealth, there are plenty of other tech philanthropists out there giving away millions, some who are well-established, and others who are just starting.
Every year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy produces a valuable list of the 50 largest donors, but these numbers don't necessarily help us understand an individual's overall giving, nor do they really measure generosity. So instead of looking strictly at the size of an individual's donations, we've come up with a more robust approach. We use relative generosity as our main criteria here, looking at what percentage of their wealth a person has given away.
Why Relative Generosity Matters
There's been a lot of talk and numbers crunching about relative generosity among different groups of Americans, with researchers finding big disparities by geography, income, and religion. But this same lens has not been applied to giving by the very wealthiest of Americans. That's a big missing piece, since the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 is equal to about 8 percent of GDP, and as great as the net worth of the bottom half of all U.S. households. Given the wealth at stake, the philanthropy of those at the very top matters a great deal.
Looking at the giving by super wealthy individuals relative to their capacity to give provides the best handle on their actual generosity. If Jim Walton gives away $350 million this year, he could well find himself named one of the most generous donors in 2014. But since Walton is currently worth $34.5 billion, that donation would represent only around 1 percent of his net worth and, if it was a one-off gift, it could be misleading to describe Walton as among the most generous Americans. In contrast, a person who is worth $1 billion and gives away $500 million really is engaging in an eye-popping level of generosity.
So taking a close look at giving versus capacity to give is important if we want to be accurate about who the most generous donors really are, in the true sense of that word. But this exercise is also important at a moment when calls are rising for the wealthy to give away more of their money. Indeed, there's a whole organization dedicated to upping the philanthropic ante called Bolder Giving.
Actually figuring out how much the super rich give compared to how much they can give is no easy thing. People's net worth can fluctuate greatly, which muddies the picture. A billionaire may give away a big chunk of his fortune, only to see what's left grow by new leaps and bounds, masking the true dimension of their early generosity. Or they may lose gobs of money, making their philanthropic contributions an even bigger sacrifice of personal wealth in retrospect. (Case in point: Ted Turner's big pledge to the U.N. before his Time Warner-AOL stock lost most of its value.) Nor is it always easy to figure out how much these megadonors have given to charity. Many of their donations are fairly transparent, listed on public tax filings, but sometimes donors wish to remain anonymous, which can make tracking their giving nearly impossible. It's a complicated picture overall, and we've chosen to initially tackle the challenge of assessing relative generosity by looking at philanthropists in the tech sector, which we closely follow here at Inside Philanthropy. (See our Tech Philanthropists guide.)
It should also be noted that while our main criteria for this list is overall giving relative to net worth, there are other factors we take into consideration as well, such as the philanthropists’ ages and how long they’ve had their wealth.
Give Now or Give Later?
Should wealthy people give away large chunks of their fortune as early in life as they can? That question elicits fierce debate, and we're well aware that there are strong arguments on both sides. Many business leaders who are still in the swing of their careers may feel that they don't have the bandwidth to be effective philanthropists. They may also believe that it's better to keep their money working to grow larger fortunes that can have an even bigger impact later. Further, they may worry that cashing in shares could dilute control over their companies or rattle other shareholders and investor confidence. We get these arguments, and we know that the jury is still out on a guy like, say, Steve Ballmer, who didn't engage in much philanthropy at a time when he had an all-consuming day job and big stake in Microsoft.
We're also thankful that a guy like Steve Jobs wasn't interested in philanthropy and didn't give away piles of Apple stock when it was worth, like, forty bucks a share. Apple stock is now worth astronomically more, and Jobs's philanthropically inclined widow sits on a fortune estimated at $14 billion. Delayed philanthropy can prove quite fortuitous.
On the other hand, we also sympathize with arguments in favor of early giving. The logic here is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—that distributing more money up front has a compounding effect, and ends up doing more good than sitting on the money for years or even decades, which can often happen when that money is parked in a donor-advised fund or charitable trust. Even if it means you’re giving away less in total, vaccinating a bunch of kids now against polio is better than dealing with the huge societal costs later of having kids with polio. Teaching farmers how to plant drought resistant crops today is better than dealing with famine tomorrow. And so on.
There are also plenty of examples of super-busy people who managed to give away vast fortunes in an effective fashion even as they excelled at their day jobs. Michael Bloomberg was giving away several hundred million dollars a year during his final term as Mayor of New York City. He kept things simple by giving huge grants to a small number of high-impact organizations. George Soros gave big even while running a fantastically successful hedge fund. So the idea that billionaires can't make and give away money at the same time just doesn't hold up. It's not that complicated to put big money to good use.
On balance, we think that generosity is important no matter where one is in their career trajectory. And what we'd say to super wealthy techies who are perplexed by where to give their money is: Get a cause. There are plenty around, and you can always switch later. Also, you don't need to be a big innovator with your philanthropy. Just do some good.
Okay, enough throat clearing. Here's our list of the most generous philanthropists, in ascending order.
12. MICHAEL DELL
Michael Dell has been on the Forbes 400 list for over two decades, and he's been engaged in pretty large-scale philanthropy since 2000, when he and wife formed the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. That foundation has since given nearly $1 billion to charitable causes, both globally and in the U.S., mainly focusing on health, urban education, and the Austin community. And it still has another $700 million in assets on hand. Impressive, for sure. Yet even considering a possible couple hundred million in donations that the couple has made made outside their foundation, that’s still only about 10 percent of their net worth, which is currently estimated at $17.5 billion. The couple has been super generous, but not remarkably so in relative terms and nowhere near as generous as some of the others on this list, considering the amount they could be giving. In fairness, it should be noted that Michael Dell still has his day job running a Fortune 100 company, and even with Susan playing a leadership role in the family's giving, the couple may feel there are limits to how much they can focus on philanthropy. Luckily, Dell and his wife, who are both in early middle age, still have plenty of time to increase their giving. (See IP's profiles of Michael and Susan)
11. PAUL ALLEN
Though Paul Allen was named the most charitable living man in America in 2011, giving away $372.6 million that year, the Microsoft cofounder has only given away just north of $1.5 billion in total, a sum that seems relatively small considering he’s worth around $16 billion, and he's been a billionaire for at least two decades now. The good news is that his philanthropy has been steadily hitting big numbers in recent years—he was ranked 11th on the Chronicle of Philanthropy's 2013 list of top givers, donating $206 million last year. He's also gradually morphed from a largely regional philanthropist to one with rather grand ambitions. His biggest focus has been on unlocking the mysteries of the human brain, with much of this giving (some $500 million or more) going to Allen Institute for Brain Science.
But as we've also noted in our coverage of Allen, his giving interests are expanding, with his foundation moving recently into marine and wildlife conservation. As a signer of the Giving Pledge, we're expecting Allen to significantly pick up the pace in the coming years. At the same time, he's made careful plans to ensure that the majority of his estate is used for philanthropic purposes after he's gone, so he may not be in any big rush to give away the bulk of his fortune while still living, as some donors are intent on doing. Either way, he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on. (See IP's profile of Paul Allen.)
10. MARK ZUCKERBERG
Given both their youth and the relative newness of their wealth, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are way ahead in the philanthropy game, and their relative generosity at this stage is impressive. Donating nearly $1 billion in Facebook stock to a donor-advised fund through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF)—the biggest single donation of 2013—Zuckerberg and Chan are quickly planting a large philanthropic footprint. The amount of stock they gave in 2012 was actually comparative, and landed them in the number two spot behind Warren Buffett that year, but was only worth about $500 million at the time. It too is now worth closer to $1 billion, given the rise in Facebook's stock (almost all of it still appears to be held in their donor-advised fund). So, at this point, Zuckerberg and Chan—neither of whom is yet 30—have already donated a notable fraction of their wealth: more than $2 billion of a fortune now estimated at $28.5 billion. Percentage-wise that's actually smaller than Dell or Allen, but we're bumping them up because they've made such significant contributions in such a short period of time.
It’s hard to say what their distribution strategy might be, and how fast the money will move out the door, but Zuckerberg and Chan did recently give $5 million from that fund to a Silicon Valley health center, so we’re starting to see some movement there. One question that remains is whether or not the money will be used primarily to support Bay Area organizations, since that is generally SVCF’s main focus, or if Zuckerberg and Chan, being rather unique contributors, will use it as a vehicle to support a broader range of causes, or perhaps start their own foundation and transfer the funds there. More telling than their big gift to SVCF, however, may be the $100 million Zuckerberg gave for Newark, NJ schools in 2010, and his creation of FWD.us, which has been a leading advocate of immigration reform. It seems as though Zuckerberg and Chan are wasting no time wading into a variety of charitable causes, and are positioned to be an exceedingly generous philanthropic force for a long time to come. (See IP's profiles of Mark and Priscilla.)
9. PIERRE OMIDYAR
More than just about any other philanthropists, Pierre and Pam Omidyar have blurred the lines between their non-profit giving, and their for-profit investments, which can make it even more difficult to assess their giving than it otherwise would be. Becoming billionaires when eBay went public in 1998, the Omidyars quickly developed an interest in philanthropy, and in 2001, Pierre publicly stated his intention of giving away most of his fortune in his lifetime. So how are the Omidyars doing so far? They have now donated well over $1 billion to a wide range of causes, but with an estimated $8.2 billion net worth, they still have a long way to go. Indeed, from the looks of it, the Omidyars haven't really made much of a dent in burning through their pile of money. They actually have more money now than they did in 2006, when Forbes pegged Pierre's net worth at $7.7 billion. Maybe that's why they've been ratcheting things up with $225 million in giving in 2013 alone, ranking them No. 7 on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the year’s top donors. Of course, it's worth bearing in mind that this couple has plenty of time to give away the bulk of their fortune while they are still living. Pierre is 46. (See IP's profiles of Pam & Pierre).
8. DAVID BOHNETT
This early Internet entrepreneur scored around $300 million when he sold GeoCities to Yahoo in 1998 (remember that?). He then hit the ground running with his philanthropy and has been going strong ever since. The David Bohnett Foundation has been mostly focused on LGBT issues, but also supports the arts, nonprofits in his home city of Los Angeles, and efforts to reduce gun violence. It keeps a helpful running tally of every dollar that's ever gone out the door—which, as of today, totals exactly $53,411,239. We don't know how much of a tax hit Bohnett took on that original payday from Yahoo, or how much he's made (or lost) since then on various investments through his venture capital firm, Baroda Ventures. But any way you slice it, David Bohnett has given away a sizeable chunk of his fortune and shows no signs of letting up on his giving. Oh, and he's also given a ton of money to sway electoral outcomes, including being one of the largest donors fighting Prop. 8, the anti-gay ballot initiative in California.
7. IRWIN JACOBS
While Irwin and Joan Jacobs don’t have a robust foundation with its own programs or grantmaking initiatives, the Qualcomm founder and his wife are still significant philanthropists—especially relative to their net worth. In total, they’ve already given around $500 million to charitable causes, and have a fortune estimated at $1.8 billion. So that's pretty large amount of money that's already gone out the door, which makes sense given that Irwin Jacobs is 80 and has been wealthy for a long time. The Jacobses prefer to support organizations they’re familiar with, and much of their giving stays local to San Diego, with major donations to a relatively small number of organizations that focus primarily on health, education, technology, and the Jewish Community. As signatories of the giving pledge, don't expect the Jacobses to ease up on philanthropy any time soon. (See IP's profile of Jacobs.)
6. JEFF SKOLL
According to Skoll’s letter joining the Giving Pledge, the first President of eBay, currently worth $3.8 billion, has already given roughly half his net wealth to socially beneficial organizations, and plans to contribute almost all of it “to the betterment of humanity,” during or after his lifetime. His Skoll Foundation holds about $500 million in assets, and tends to distribute $20-$40 million per year, and the more recent Skoll Global Threats Fund has distributed more than $25 million since its formation in 2010. Both tackle a variety of issues, including health, education, economic development, water and sanitation, and food security through a social entrepreneurship model, which looks to support organizations that have economically viable plans to create sustainable growth.
Having awarded somewhere in the neighborhood of $450 million since creating his foundations, it may appear there is something of a disconnect between Skoll’s accounting and his total giving, which seems to be right around $1 billion. Skoll, however, is also factoring in Participant Media, his production company that while not nonprofit, uses film to tackle a variety of important social issues, and has started to develop a nonprofit arm called TakePart. At the end of the day, this strategy enables Skoll to do good and make money at the same time—money that will likely end up going toward philanthropic causes as well. (See IP's profile of Skoll.)
5. TIM GILL
At the height of the dotcom boom, Tim Gill sold his stake in Quark, the software company he started, for a reported $500 million, and put a big piece of that money into a foundation he'd set up years earlier, the Gill Foundation. Since then, the Gill Foundation has spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $240 million to promote LGBT equality, and as of the end of 2012, was sitting on $222 million in assets. In addition, Gill eventually put major resources into a second foundation, the Gill Operating Foundation, an entity the Gill Foundation used to run its own programs, and which at one point had $82 million in assets. It's hard to say overall how much of his personal fortune Tim Gill has put into philanthropy, but it could add up to well over half his money. (Gill also made millions in political contributions.)
Gill's fast and furious philanthropic spending offers up a great case study in the benefits of frontloading big giving. He didn't just catch the wave of social change around LGBT issues, his foundation helped create that wave and, along with a small group of other funders, helped moved the needle in this area in a comparatively short time frame. Gill's giving certainly wouldn't have had the impact it did if he'd waited until later in life to engage in serious philanthropy, or had given at a more modest level.
4. ED SCOTT
Scott made most of his fortune in the unsexy world of "middleware"—the software that connects operating systems and software applications—with a company called BEA. He's one of the many tech winners who aren't at the Forbes 400 level, but have made fortunes of hundreds of millions of dollars. Since 2001, a decent share of that money has gone into fighting global poverty and disease, as well as trying to raise the level of public debate in the United States and find better treatments to autism. Scott's biggest investment, of $25 million, went to start the Center on Global Development, the premier policy shop in Washington working to reduce poverty worldwide. Scott's money also helped start several other global poverty organizations, including DATA and the Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty. We've described Scott as "Silicon Valley's most effective global giver," because he's focused on leveraging his money by investing in work that can change policy. In a recent conversation with IP, Scott said that he no longer had the funds for more big philanthropic investments, suggesting he's tapped out.
3. BILL GATES
Having given away more than any other living person, Bill Gates is in a class of his own, both in terms of his wealth and the scale of his giving. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had $40.2 billion in assets at the end of the 2012, and gave away $3.4 billion that year. In total, the foundation has given away $28 billion since its inception. And beyond the sheer scale of the giving is how the Gateses have significantly changed the face of philanthropy by spending huge sums to analyze problems and potential solutions, and then creating robust partnerships, actively working with the organizations they support, and developing rigorous metrics to hold grantees accountable to ensure maximum impact.
So why isn't Bill Gates number one on this list? Because he's actually given away a smaller portion of his total wealth than some other tech philanthropists. For all their giving, Bill and Melinda Gates still keep the majority of their wealth on the sidelines. Their current net worth of $76 billion is nearly twice as great as the endowment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Most likely, though, virtually all this money will be given away down the line. In addition to pledging the vast majority of their assets to their foundation, Bill and Melinda have also added an interesting caveat to their giving: Instead of setting up their foundation to operate in perpetuity, it will close its doors twenty years after both of them are deceased. So if the Gateses live another 30 years, we're talking about a half century time frame to get rid of combined personal and foundation assets that currently stand at around $115 billion. (See IP's profiles of Bill and Melinda.)
2. GORDON MOORE
Among the wealthiest philanthropists, it's hard to match Gordon and Betty Moore in terms of amount of giving relative to their overall assets. In 2001, they sunk half their wealth into the creation of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The foundation has subsequently made some $3 billion in grants, mostly in support of environmental conservation, scientific research, patient care, and San Francisco Bay Area charities—and mostly from drawing on interest on the endowment, which helps explains why GBMF currently has assets that now stand at $5.6 billion, ranking it as the tenth largest foundation in the U.S. (and second only to the Gateses among tech philanthropists). While many of the tech philanthropists on this list are relatively young, Moore is 85, and got rich from Intel decades ago. He's had a long time to develop his giving and now has a limited amount of time left to solidify his legacy.
Gordon Moore's $5 billion net worth is still formidable, so plenty of money remains on the sidelines. Our bet is that the Moores starting giving their foundation additional very large chunks of money in the next few years. In addition, look for other major gifts outside the foundation, like the $50 million the Moores recently pledged to the UCSF Medical Center. (See IP's profile of Gordon Moore.)
1. LEONARD BOSACK & SANDY LERNER
Though Bosack and Lerner have never been able to give at the level of many on this list, in relative terms they have been more generous than anyone. When the Cisco co-founders walked away from the organization they’d founded in 1990, they received $170 million in compensation, and within a relatively short period of time, put more than 70 percent of that money toward charitable causes, mostly involving animal welfare. No longer married, they remain close friends, and it is clear that they've had a major impact on the causes they support. At this point, they have mostly exhausted their charitable giving, though the foundation that bears Bosack’s name still had around $7 million in assets after making $1.7 million in grants in 2012, and Lerner is known to tap her high-powered network by hosting frequent fundraising events. Whether or not either will end up making another fortune is hard to say—Lerner in particular seems content as an organic farmer and small business owner—but their past generosity makes them the sort of people we root for, and perhaps also the sort that other philanthropists could learn from. (See Bosack and Lerner's profiles.)
And 6 of the Least Generous
Do some techies make a giant bundle and then keep nearly all of it for themselves? You bet. In fact, some of the most significant fortunes in the United States are in the hands of tech leaders who have engaged in only minor philanthropy, at least relative to their wealth.
Before naming names, two caveats are in order, both of which we already touched on briefly. First, it's impossible to know if somebody is making big gifts anonymously. Giving without leaving fingerprints is especially appealing to billionaires who've yet to set up an infrastructure for fielding the avalanche of inquiries that will come their way if they're associated with a particular issue. So bear that in mind. Second, some tech moguls who are wrapped up in work may be putting off their philanthropy until later, when they feel they have the time to give more wisely. We get that reasoning, even if we can name plenty of multi-taskers who can both make money and give it away at the same time.
Deep down, though, our bias is to believe that super wealthy who have done very little philanthropy have not given big because, well, they just don't care enough about the world's problems to do something useful with their fortunes. This is not to say that they won't care later, which often happens as people move through different stages in life, but, as in the example of Michael Bloomberg, having a full time job is not really an excuse for a lack of charity.
Amazon's chief—a libertarian known for his belief in self-reliance—engaged in virtually no philanthropy for years, and eventually took some heat in Seattle for not supporting good works locally. For a long time, his parents did more giving with their Amazon shares than Bezos did with his billions. Now things are starting to change, with a few high profile gifts going out the door for brain science and cancer research, including $15 million to Princeton University. But cumulatively, it's all pocket change relative to Bezos's $32 billion fortune, and Bezos hasn't signed the Giving Pledge. (See IP's profile of Bezos.)
If this Googe co-founder, who's worth $32 billion, has a secret philanthropic life, we'd love to know about it. Because right now it looks like he's a big cheerleader for Google's philanthropic and social endeavors, while kicking the can down the road in terms of engaging in his own serious philanthropy. Page has a foundation, the Carl Victor Page Memorial Fund, with assets of over a half billion dollars. But the foundation seems to give only to donor-advised funds that can sit on the money indefinitely, which makes following his philanthropy a bit like a shell game, leaving the viewer scratching his or her head and wondering where the ball is hidden. Page hasn't signed the Giving Pledge. (See IP's profile of Page.)
Ballmer's only just left his all-consuming day job as Microsoft CEO, and we've predicted that he and his wife Connie, a nonprofit veteran, will soon turn on the giving spigot in a big way, drawing on a $19 billion fortune. Otherwise, Ballmer has largely been a no-show in terms of his own philanthropy beyond the occasional big gift here and there, even as Microsoft has ramped up its charitable giving under in his leadership. (See IP's profile of Ballmer.) Weirdly, Ballmer hasn't signed the Giving Pledge, and we can only wonder how many times Bill Gates has suggested that he do so.
Ellison gave tens of millions annually toward medical research for years, before largely cutting off funding in this area last year to rejigger his philanthropy. All told, Ellison has given at least a half billion dollars for medical research. Holy cow, we'd say— if Ellison weren't the third wealthiest American, now with a fortune of $48 billion. His lifetime giving may only be a third of what twentysomething Mark Zuckerberg has done. It's just a tad more than Michael Bloomberg gave away in 2013 alone, when he still had his day job as Mayor of New York. Maybe Ellison just hasn't been able to spare the money for bigger philanthropy given the fortune that he's spent trying to win the World Cup, building a lavish Japanese estate in Silicon Valley for $200 million, and building a super yacht, also for $200 million. But patience, people. Ellison explained in his Giving Pledge letter that he long ago put virtually all of his assets into a trust and plans to give away 95 percent of his wealth. (See IP's profile of Ellison.)
Yang has such a small philanthropic footprint that he's one of the few Silicon Valley billionaires that we don't profile in our Tech Philanthropists guide. He and his wife have made at least one notable donation—$75 million in 2007 to his alma mater, Stanford University (where Yang sits on the board) to build the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building. His wife also sits on the board of the Wildlife Conservation Network, and Yang used to be on the board of the Asia Pacific Fund (a community foundation). But for a guy who's been a billionaire since the late 1990s and is now worth $2.1 billion that's not much of a giving record. Yang hasn't signed the Giving Pledge.
It's been six years since Michael Birch and wife Xochi netted a reported $595 million when they sold Bebo, a social networking site, to AOL—plenty of time for Birch to get started with some serious philanthropy. But as far as we know, Birch has only backed one cause in any substantial way, which is charity:water, and he's done a lot for that organization—he's given it $10.5 million, he opened doors in Silicon Valley, helped develop charity:water's website, and created Water Forward, a site designed to raise money for charity:water. He's also donated $1 million to Water.org. So there's no question that Birch's heart is in the right place. But the actual percentage of his large fortune that he's given away appears to be minute. Any typical middle class U.S. household is, statistically, likely to be more generous in relative terms than this massive tech winner. Meanwhile, Birch and Xochi shelled out $29 million for a mansion in Pacific Heights and then $13.6 million for a vineyard estate in Sonoma. More recently, Birch has spent millions on his latest cause, which is a private club where the Bay Area elite can hobnob. (See IP's profile of Birch.)
While there are plenty of others we probably could have added to this list of least generous, these are definitely some of the more notable ones, and we hope this and other efforts might help change their giving patterns. Because we'd like nothing more to put all of them on the most generous list.
Mike Gentilucci is the Tech & Wall St. Editor at Inside Philanthropy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org