Analysis of the year's biggest philanthropists.
Dec. 3 1996 3:30 AM

The 1996 SLATE 60

Competitive Generosity 101 


It is difficult enough to measure the quantity of giving in America--note the many caveats we are obliged to state in the introduction to our SLATE 60 list of America's biggest donors. How much more perilous, then, to judge the quality of such largesse.


The very notion of quality as applied to acts of philanthropy is suspect. Even if it were possible to assess the ultimate value of a gift to society or a specific beneficiary, that would still leave out other moral considerations, such as the degree of sacrifice entailed by the giver or the worthiness of his or her motives.

Another moral complication is that charity can have unintended consequences for both giver and receiver. Joseph C. Harmon, in an annotation of philanthropy's manifestations in works of short fiction, concludes that it "can be practiced with motives that can be far from charitable, is not necessarily a self-evident good, and usually results in its practitioners being transformed in ways they neither expected nor desired."

Most practitioners intend their generosity not only to be beneficial in effect but to respond to the dictates of a moral code, whether religious or secular. Such codes, however, are rarely clear guides. The New Testament, for example, tells us that the widow's mite (Mark 12: 41-44) was valued by Christ more than all the large contributions by the wealthy who preceded her, "for they did cast in of their abundance, but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living."

The magnificently generous SLATE 60 have surely "cast in of their abundance," as Mark would say. Yet many others, similarly favored with the world's goods, contribute little or nothing. While almost 70 percent of U.S. households reported giving something to charity in 1995, a study done that year by two Boston College scholars, Paul Schervish and John Havens, found that a relatively small number of individuals (10 percent of households) account for the bulk (54 percent) of contributions. The supergenerous few--those who give away 5 percent or more of their income--are scattered across the income distribution, even at the lowest reaches. Yet, the donations of the wealthy count for a lot--the richest one-half of 1 percent of households are responsible for 11 percent of total giving.


Another of the evangelists (Matthew 6:1-4) warns donors not to "sound a trumpet before thee as the hypocrites do ... that they may have glory from men. ... But when thou doest alms let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." (Matthew had similarly low regard for public praying and other manifestations of piety.) Perhaps heeding this admonition, a substantial number of large givers do give anonymously. But, in a nearby verse (5: 16), Matthew himself also counsels to "let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven."

Most of the SLATE 60 have chosen to endow institutes, centers, faculty residences, and academic chairs to which their names, or those of loved ones, will be affixed in perpetuity. Monogrammed giving is easy to mock. But it satisfies more than a normal human desire to purchase a measure of immortality. It also serves as an enduring example to other potential donors, and so its beneficence may be multiplied in years to come. Indeed, encouragement-by-example is the main reason for the SLATE 60 list--the hope that others will be inspired to do likewise.

One might wish, however, that future givers will spread their bounty more broadly across the spectrum of national needs. With few exceptions, the top givers of 1996 confined their largesse to colleges and universities. The higher learning these gifts endow will benefit to some degree not only American students, but the many foreign students attracted by the excellence of our institutions, while perhaps spawning new breakthroughs in the sciences, literature, and the arts. Yet, this country is already richly endowed with institutions of higher learning--so much so, that many are competing for students. (Likewise hospitals, another favorite charity of the rich, now compete for patients.) Meanwhile, numerous less-glamorous public needs go unaddressed.

With the possible exception of George Soros' donations to help legal immigrants become citizens and to revamp the nation's drug policy and James Michener's gift to his hometown's public library, none among the SLATE 60 directed their gifts to the provision of social-welfare services. Among the "also-rans," Houston attorney John O'Quinn's gift of $1.5 million to help build a counseling center for sexually abused children is a lone standout. This at a time when many in Congress are counting on private charity to fill the gap left by government retrenchment in these areas. Both large ($1 million-plus) gifts directed to social-welfare charities on the public record for 1996 were anonymous. One was a donation to the Franciscan Little Sisters of the Poor. The other, most intriguingly, was the transfer (via a plain white envelope with no return address) to St. Jude's Children's Hospital of a winning McDonald's lottery ticket. McDonald's waived its no-transfer rule and redeemed the ticket for $1 million.