Analysis of the year's biggest philanthropists.
Jan. 26 1997 3:30 AM

Introduction

The final tally of the 60 largest American charitable contributions of 1996, and the first look at 1997 giving.

 

Outbreaks of egregious generosity are hitting the front pages and magazine covers; the New York Times featured two such stories as recently as Thursday, Jan. 23. We'd like to think that SLATE's list of America's biggest givers has already played some role in promoting this liberality. But that would be presumptuous. It might not even be true. Still, there are encouraging signs.

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When the University of Southern California School of Business recently announced a late-1996 pledge of $35 million from alumnus Gordon S. Marshall, chairman of the board of Marshall Industries, USC's press release pointed out that the gift "places Marshall in the top 10 of SLATE's recently published--and much heralded--list of America's leading philanthropists for 1996." And, indeed, as the updated 1996 SLATE 60 list reveals, Marshall's munificence has propelled him into the No. 9 spot. As a result of this and another late-breaking gift from Guardian Industries CEO William Davidson, our own Bill Gates has tumbled from 10th to 12th place. Meanwhile, Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, leapt into 23rd place with a total of $16.6 million in 1996 gifts. That should spur some ... er ... healthy competition.

Another hopeful harbinger is the response we got after the lists were first published in December. Calls poured in to us and to Ann Castle, formerly of Harvard's Development Office and now at Hamilton College, who gathered, sifted, and annotated the information in the lists. The calls came from philanthropists and fund-raisers, and from ordinary citizens who applauded the effort and wanted to know if they could help out. And they came from other media outlets around the country. Some, such as Time magazine, reprinted the SLATE 60 list. Others expressed their chagrin that, having thought of the same idea, they never got around to carrying it out (and never found Ann Castle).

Fortune magazine poured its substantial resources into compiling its own shorter list of the nation's "top 25 philanthropists," based, it said, on interviews with "hundreds of the wealthiest Americans," as well as on information collected regionally from community foundations and local sources and "hundreds of financial filings." Unlike SLATE's list, Fortune's includes contributions from individuals' personal foundations in addition to those directly from them, but otherwise the data are comfortingly similar to those that Ann Castle compiled alone in her spare time, searching public sources such as press releases, newspapers, magazines, and online sources, as well as information reports from private foundations.

In addition to the wrap-up of the 1996 standings, Ann's latest efforts have produced the start of a list for 1997. It is topped by a $20 million donation, announced this week, to Cornell University to train young scientists and engineers. The generous donor, David A. Duffield, heads Peoplesoft Inc., a California firm that is also in the computer-software-development business.

So far, the 1997 gifts, as well as those added to the 1996 roster, follow the earlier mold: primarily gifts to institutions of higher learning, with a smattering of grants to museums, libraries, and medical centers. Two new entries depart from the pattern, however. One, on the 1997 list, comes from an unusual source--a professional athlete. Atlanta Hawks guard Steve Smith has donated $2.5 million. Most of it goes to his alma mater, Michigan State University, for a student-athlete support center, but part of it is for a relatively unusual purpose--to endow yearly academic scholarships for two students from his Detroit high school. Another, added to the 1996 "Honorable Mentions"(our "Also-Ran" list, now rechristened), is a $5 million gift from the family of late real-estate developer Frank M. Doyle, to fund scholarships for students at an Orange County high school.

We've also added a list of the top 10 anonymous gifts in 1996 (actually 17 gifts, including ties for last place), to begin to show the size and scope of such giving. A front-page story in the Jan. 23 New York Times drew attention to this important sector of philanthropy. The no-longer-unknown donor in question, Charles Feeney, had apparently managed to give away an astounding $600 million undetected. (The sale of the chain of duty-free shops he co-founded forced him to disclose his gifts.) The motivations for anonymous giving are many: Feeney said he didn't want to attract the attention of other fund-raisers and didn't care about recognition for his generosity. Even the Bible is of two minds about whether the self-effacement of hidden giving morally outweighs the exemplary effect of public giving, which the SLATE 60 list aims to promote (see Competitive Generosity 101).

Late additions to the 1996 list had the effect of pushing the donors of gifts of less than $10 million off the SLATE 60 list entirely. In our earlier list, a mere $5 million sufficed to make the cut. The outranked have now been transferred to our "Honorable Mentions" list, to give greater due to their still-extraordinary generosity. We did not update the "Honorable Mentions" list below the $5 million level. Ann Castle will, however, be doing a thorough update for her records, and interested parties can obtain a copy by e-mailing her. She'd also be glad to receive any tips on sizable donations that she might have missed, or any mistakes we might have made.

We've amended our numbering scheme to be fairer to those burdened with late-in-the-alphabet surnames. Donors who tie with each other in generosity are now accorded the same numeric ranking; a gap in the subsequent numbering accounts for the donors assigned equal rank. We continue to wrestle with definitional problems: For example, should pledges of future gifts count in the year they are made, or only when the cash is actually transferred? Our 1996 list includes a mix of methods. For the future, including 1997, we plan to include the pledge in the year it is made, but not the actual payments down the road. We also plan to start including gifts to create or enlarge foundations (although this may lead to some double counting if named-donor gifts are later made by those foundations). Ann will also be checking more closely with existing foundations to discover major gifts that escape public attention. And we still haven't figured out how to give proper credit for the cumulative charity of a lifetime.

We will be updating the SLATE 60 list quarterly, along with occasional commentary on such subjects as international gifts, women's philanthropy, the charitable activity of Hollywood celebrities and sports stars, gifts from young entrepreneurs, corporate giving, the creation of new private foundations, and gifts to social service and religious organizations. Please let us know of areas that especially interest you.

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