Analysis of the year's biggest philanthropists.
Feb. 22 1998 3:30 AM

The largest American charitable contributions of 1997 and early 1998.

Introduction

 

Competitive generosity in the United States gained sufficient momentum last year to escalate into its metaphase. Now the focus has widened from acts of individual philanthropy, as munificent and multitudinous as they have become, to encompass the relative standing of the donors among their fellows.

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Of course, that was what CNN's Ted Turner intended when he first suggested that lists of the philanthropic be compiled: to inspire the same competitive spirit in the pursuit of extravagant generosity that has impelled so many in this country to ever more extravagant acquisitiveness. In that spirit, Slate is proud to have been the first to compile such a list, with the inestimable help of Ann Castle. Ever since the first Slate 60 list was published in the last quarter of 1996, Ann's unmatched knowledge of individual giving has been much sought out by other organizations that have compiled similar lists. So numerous, in fact, have those lists become, that the New York Times moved onto the meta-meta plane in December, publishing a list of lists. No doubt others have made similarly useful compilations, and we await the publication of the third derivative: the list of lists of lists.

As for the Slate 60 1997 wrap-up list of last year's most generous living Americans, it is led by Turner himself. He also topped the Slate 60 third-quarter update with his pledge of $1 billion over 10 years to U.N.-related causes. That magnificent promise, however, is not enough to earn him the title of the premier philanthropist of recent times. That honor may ultimately belong not to an Annenberg or a Mellon but to one Charles F. Feeney. You had probably never heard of Feeney, who made a fortune from his chain of Duty-Free Shops, until a year ago, when he revealed an anonymous gift of $600 million to a group of hospitals, universities, and other nonprofits. Over the years, Feeney had transferred shares worth an estimated $3.5 billion to two foundations, the Atlantic Foundation and the Atlantic Trust in Bermuda, a fact that he disclosed only reluctantly when a lawsuit over the sale of his chain made further anonymity impossible.

We are, however, giving Turner and other 1997 pledgers full faith and credit for their promises, mindful that not all such pledges are ultimately honored. Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, filed suit last year against a couple who had reneged on a $5-million pledge. Such lawsuits may become increasingly common, because a 1995 change by the accounting world's rule-making body makes nonprofit organizations record pledges as income at the time they are made. Let us hope that the Slate 60 is not forced to record any derelictions of delivery in the future.

Many of the others claiming high honors for the full year have also appeared in one or more of Slate's quarterly updates. George Soros, for example, claims the No. 2 spot with a smashing $530.5 million in donations and pledges. Microsoft's Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, weigh in at No. 3, with almost $243 million in donations; his former partner, Paul Allen (No. 12), scattered close to $32 million among an imaginative array of causes. "I Have a Dream" Foundation founder Eugene Lang (tied at No. 14) honored his alma mater, Swarthmore College (which he credits with moving him from dishwasher to multimillionaire status), with a $30-million donation. Others, however, joined the list for the first time. For example, Phyllis Wattis (No. 6), great-granddaughter of early Mormon leader Brigham Young, parceled out $67 million among San Francisco-area cultural institutions. In all, the Slate 60 (actually 67, given ties among $10-million givers for last place) gave a total of more than $3.1 billion in 1997, compared with the final total for the 1996Slate 60: a mere $1.3 billion.

A few celebrity names are scattered throughout the top 60 list, among them the superagent Michael Ovitz (tied at No. 17) and the now-deceased Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener (tied at No. 46). Other widely known names make the Honorable Mentions list that Ann Castle has also prepared of donors of more than $1 million in 1997. Among them are horror novelist Stephen King, actor-director Clint Eastwood, "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, boxer Evander Holyfield, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore of Moore's Law fame, David Geffen of DreamWorks SKG, and former "Queen of Mean" Leona Helmsley.

But special honors are due to a woman whom few beyond her circle of friends and neighbors knew. Eleanor Boyer (No. 4 among the Honorable Mentions), 72, hit it rich in the New Jersey state lottery in November--and gave the entire $11.8 million ($8 million after taxes) away, half to her church and half to the rescue squad, volunteer fire department, and other groups in the town in which she grew up. Extra praise, too, to Joan Kroc (tied at No. 38 on the main list), who not only tried to do her good deed anonymously (she was outed by the local media) but also tried to do it without the help of Uncle Sam. The $15 million or more she handed out to victims of the Red River (N.D.) flood isn't even tax deductible.

There are, of course, many people of modest means, like Boyer, who give far larger proportions of their incomes and savings than do the most generous philanthropists of note. Barbara McKillip, for example, a 45-year-old librarian in Oregon, runs a one-woman, donor-dependent foundation that supplies children's books to impoverished public libraries in small, rural towns.

Dorothy and Westry Horne, a couple in their 80s living on pensions in Plainfield, N.J., routinely give away from 15 percent to 20 percent of their income while doing volunteer work and fund raising for numerous causes, including the homeless, elderly shut-ins, disadvantaged youths, and the National Council for Negro Women. "We get a lot out of life being able to help someone else," Dorothy Horne says. "It's not what you do for yourself, it's what you're able to do for others that brings real happiness."

But it's hard to find out about the ordinary people who do extraordinary things (we're indebted to ABC's Muriel Pearson for steering us to the Hornes). If there happen to be some real-life saints in your neighborhood, do let us know.

You may wonder why you don't see Michael and Jane Eisner, Raymond Nasher, Kathryn Albertson, and the late Roberto Goizueta on the Slate 60, given that there was such fanfare when they plunked down huge amounts of stock or other assets into a private foundation.

We decided to recognize these folks' philanthropy when they move funds out of their family foundation and into the hands of a nonprofit institution or organization with a defined purpose and nonfamily decision-makers. So while Albertson does not appear on the Slate 60, she does have a place on our Honorable Mentions roll with her $4.5-million gift to Albertson College; she made this gift from her family foundation, to which she had distributed $660 million early in 1997. This also helps us avoid double counting the gift to the private foundation and the gift from that foundation to a school, museum, hospital, or other entity.

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