What's an Atheist, Libertarian Millionaire With No Heirs to Do With His Fortune?

What's an atheist, libertarian millionaire with no heirs to do with his fortune, now that he's long retired and well into his golden years?

If that millionaire is Robert W. Wilson, he writes checks — huge checks — to a select list of charitable causes. Wilson can't take it with him, and he's not interested in pawning the job off on a bunch of foundation types, so he's giving it away now in big chunks. Fortunately for endangered species, a huge beneficiary has been the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has seen Wilson skyrocket to the top of the their list of donors, with no close second. (See Robert Wilson Charitable Trust: Grants for Animals and Wildlife).

Wilson gives in a few areas, one of which is conservation, through The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense, and WCS. Since 2004, he's given the 115-year-old organization devoted to saving endangered species a total of around $80 million dollars. This makes him the conservancy's largest supporter, with four times the donations of the next funder on the list.

So who is Robert Wilson, and why does he care so much about animals? The second part is a bit tougher to answer, but Wilson made his fortune starting way back in 1949, starting with $15,000 and building up to $225 million in his career as a shrewd hedge fund manager in New York City through the 1980s. Since then his fortune has only accumulated, and now he wants to donate it, at least 70% of it, before he cashes out.

Whether you agree with his conservative politics or his giving strategy, read a few interviews with Wilson and it's impossible not to like the guy. He's a little goofy, says he wouldn't give his heirs his fortune even if he had any, and he thinks philanthropists too often trust their riches with foundation staff when they could do a better job themselves. He's a Republican but identifies more as libertarian ("somebody who believes in sodomy and the free market"). He’s an atheist, but gives to the Catholic Church. Ask him why he supports conservation, he has said he wants to "try and preserve things that, but for my money, might go away forever."

That means no patchouli-wearing Greenpeace lefties. He puts the "conserve" into "conservative," mostly donating to protect land and species. The Wildlife Conservation Society has a straightforward mission of saving wildlife and wild places, beginning in the late 19th century with the mission of protecting the American bison. Their activities include management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, notably the Bronx Zoo.

While the WCS and the other groups Wilson supports do admirable work, such huge chunks of support raise eyebrows in the environmental community. Granted, these organizations have large budgets, but you have to imagine $80 million buys some influence. And couldn't that money save a lot more species by going solely to fight climate change?

Maybe so, but the gorillas in the Congo and the wolverines in the Rockies aren't complaining about the checks, and the guy giving away a half a billion dollars hasn’t stopped writing them.