The largest U.S. charitable contributions of 2003.

Analysis of the year's biggest philanthropists.
Feb. 16 2004 10:32 AM

Golden Arches

Burger heiress tops this year's list of largest U.S. charitable contributions.

You can't take it with you, they say. The results from "The 2003 Slate 60" suggest this addendum: Give it away before you go, because your heirs might not share your tastes in philanthropy.

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Joan Kroc, who died last October at the age of 75, takes the No. 1 slot in our annual list of charitable gifts and pledges from the country's top philanthropists with $1.91 billion in donations. Kroc was the widow of hamburger tycoon Ray Kroc, who died in 1984, and her share of his estimated $500 million fortune metastasized into a $2 billion estate, according to Forbes. Joan Kroc gave to 10 organizations this year but the bulk of the gift, $1.5 billion, is heading for the Salvation Army to build recreational and educational facilities. Other gifts included $200 million to National Public Radio; $60 million to the Ronald McDonald House; and $50 million to the University of Notre Dame for its peace studies institute named for Joan Kroc.

Joan's Salvation Army gift and Ronald McDonald donation probably wouldn't give Ray pause. While alive, he supported research into diabetes, arthritis multiple, and alcoholism with his fortune, not to mention the lowly San Diego Padres. According to Joan, she got the philanthropy bug from Ray, and she loved to tell the story of what he said whenever asked about his generosity: "I've never seen a Brinks truck following a hearse. Have you?"

But Ray's politics were so crew-cut and conservative that he gave $250,000 to the Nixon re-election effort in 1972. To his ears, NPR sounded like Radio Moscow if not Radio Beijing. And can you imagine that the right-winger who is alleged to have said, "If my competitor were drowning I'd stick a hose in his mouth and turn on the water" would support a peace studies institute?

Slate 60 regulars Michael and Susan Dell, of Dell Computers, are wisely giving it away while they can. This year their donation of $673.7 million to their foundation, which supports childhood-development programs, landed them at No. 2 on the list. Eli and Edythe Broad, another very much alive couple who have made several previous appearances on the list, split a $409 million gift among three of their foundations, which feed the body, mind, and soul—$266 million will go toward medical research, $76 million to improve public schools, and $67 million to beef up arts appreciation.

The Slate 60 also notes the largest pledges, that is, promises of donations that will be paid out at a later date. Topping that category are Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, who plan to give an art collection, worth approximately $300 million, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The total sum given or pledged by the folks on the 2003 Slate 60 list was $5.9 billion, an uptick from last year's $4.6 billion. Check out the short profiles of donors who gave and those who pledged $25 million or more, provided to us by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Slate 60 doesn't count anonymous gifts.

Colleges and universities were the beneficiaries of more gifts than any other category. Foundations, museums, and libraries were also popular choices for the big donors' largess. When it comes to the source of donors' wealth, real estate has been very, very good to the Slate 60. Twelve of the breadwinners made their money in that area, followed by eight who struck gold in technology, and six who did it the old-fashioned way via inheritance.

A few other highlights from the list: Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., gave $100 million to the Allen Institute for Brain Science, an organization that is attempting to map the genes in the mammalian brain. Allen also pledged another $58 million, $20 million of which will go toward building a new museum in Seattle dedicated to science fiction, the passion of techno-nerds everywhere. Oprah Winfrey donated $50.7 million to the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, which provides educational and other programs that help women and children. Finally, oilman John Jackson, who died last year at 89, had pledged to leave his estate, which he valued at about $150 million, to the University of Texas at Austin. After he died, the university discovered Jackson had underestimated his worth by about $100 million. And unlike Kroc, he died a widower.

Slate thanks the Chronicle of Philanthropy for again compiling the list, with a special thanks to Matt Murray for his able and thorough assistance.

Laurie Snyder is Slate's copy chief.

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