NET WORTH: $850 million
SOURCE OF WEALTH: Microsoft Corporation, former lead attorney and head of community affairs
FUNDING AREAS: Computer Science, Higher Education, Social Justice, Family Planning
OVERVIEW: There aren’t many corporate lawyers with the enormous wealth of William “Bill” Neukom, or the level of philanthropy he and his family have taken on. But getting on board with a tiny company called Microsoft back in the late 1970s, and sticking with them through 25 years and a public offering will do the trick. Neukom’s tenure landed him a somewhat legendary reputation in both the legal community and the tech world, as well as a stint as the CEO of the San Francisco Giants.
The bowtie-clad, white-haired attorney is fairly left-leaning, and not big on accumulating wealth. He’s giving much of his fortune away to a combination of higher education, science, and human rights issues, through his personal philanthropy and through a family foundation he runs with his children, the Neukom Family Foundation, which had about $63 million in assets as of its 2015 tax filing.
BACKGROUND: Bill Neukom was an upstart lawyer living in Seattle in the late 1970s, and with only a small amount of experience, first as a clerk and then with a small firm that supported liberal causes, his boss at a new firm asked him to act as counsel for his son’s small computer programming company.
The son was Bill Gates, Jr., and his company had only 12 employees, and had just moved from Albuquerque to Seattle. With little fanfare, Neukom took the job. It was the start of a 25-year tenure during which he would become head of the legal department and later community affairs for Microsoft Corporation. During that time, he would build up a staff of hundreds of attorneys, advise the company as it became the tech force it is today, and grow wealthy after the company went public in 1986.
In 2002, he left to become a partner at his old firm, now K&L Gates. He also served as president of the American Bar Association, trustee at his alma mater Dartmouth College, and has been a longtime investor and one-time CEO of the San Francisco Giants.
He currently devotes most of his energy toward philanthropic pursuits, including an organization he founded called the World Justice Project.
PHILOSOPHY: Neukom has always been highly devoted to his educational background, citing the experiences he had at Dartmouth and Stanford as key to his success, but also to a life of well-rounded intellectual pursuits. He also believes strongly in service and justice, and believes attorneys have a responsibility to use their unique skills to better their communities. He considers his accumulation of wealth to be mostly circumstantial. From the New York Times:
"I believe I was overcompensated for my work," said Neukom, whose political outlook puts him somewhat at odds with many of his fellow [Giants] owners, several of whom are Republicans. "I was in a fortunate position, but my worth to the company is not equal to the amount of money I received. I don’t see it as money I earned. I see myself as the steward of the money, and that is why I give much of it away."
"Some people who worked for Microsoft don’t see it the way I do," he added. "But I believe it’s my job to give the money back and to other causes. But I’m no saint and I have guilty pleasures, and the Giants are one of them."
HIGHER EDUCATION: In April 2014, he made a donation of $10 million to Dartmouth College’s computer science program to create a cluster of study around the use of big data for applications across academic fields. In 2004, he gave $22 million to establish a computer science institute at the school in his name. He’s also given large amounts as a donor to Stanford, where he earned his law degree. Neukom gave $20 million as the lead investment for a new law school building, also in his name. Aside from news-making gifts, Neukom and his family foundation donate sizable chunks of money in general support to both universities.
The Neukom Family Foundation has also given to the University of Puget Sound, the Ashesi University Foundation, and Columbia University.
SCIENCE: As mentioned above, Neukom has been a big supporter of Dartmouth’s computer science education and research. It’s motivated mainly by the belief that a liberal arts education and faculty should use computation and data, and that large datasets show the potential to make transformative changes in other academic fields, such as neuroscience, but also social and behavioral sciences.
GLOBAL JUSTICE: The primary conduit for this funding is the World Justice Project, an organization that is devoted to promoting the rule of law throughout the world, including study of government accountability, open government, regulatory enforcement, and basic human rights. Neukom founded the organization, which has offices in D.C. and Seattle, and he’s still the CEO and a main funder. In 2015, the Neukom Family Foundation donated a little more than $747,000 to the organization. For 2014, that number was just north of $4.2 million, and made up the bulk of the more than $6 million in charitable contributions made by the foundation.
The Neukom Family Foundation also supports groups like the Rural Development Institute, "a nonprofit organization that partners with governments and local organizations to secure legal land rights for world’s poorest families," the Plymouth Housing Group, which provides housing for the homeless, the National Women's Law Center, Children's Rights, the Innocence Project, and the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. The foundation also gives to a Seattle-area food bank and some environmental causes, primarily on the West Coast.
FAMILY PLANNING: The Neukom Family Foundation gave a significant percentage of its total charitable contributions in 2014 and 2015 to family-planning organizations, including Planned Parenthood, the National Center for Children and Families, and Marie Stopes International, which provides contraception and abortion services to women in 37 countries worldwide.
CONTACT: Neukom Family Foundation, 925 4th Ave. Ste. 2900, Seattle, WA United States 98104
LINKS: World Justice Project