The history of the Slate 60.

Analysis of the year's biggest philanthropists.
Feb. 20 2006 8:22 AM

Competitive Philanthropy

The history of the Slate 60.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

The Slate 60 attempts to fuse two essential but conflicting aspects of the American character: generosity and competitiveness. So, it's not surprising that the inspiration for the list came from a man rich in both qualities, Ted Turner. In 1996, Slateeditor Michael Kinsley was struck by remarks Turner made in an interview with Maureen Dowd: The CNN founder bemoaned the influence of the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, saying it discouraged the wealthy from giving away their money for fear of slipping down the rankings. Turner suggested that a list of charitable contributions could inspire rich Americans to compete in a more beneficial way.

Slate accepted the challenge, for two—or maybe, three—reasons. Kinsley thought such a list would be an important contribution to American journalism and civic life. More self-interestedly, he realized it would also be a great publicity boon for Slate in our first year. And perhaps there was a little tweaking of the boss involved. At the time, Slatewas owned by Microsoft, whose CEO Bill Gates was already the world's richest person, and famous for not giving away his wealth.

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Kinsley's original idea was to list the top 50 donors, but—if my memory doesn't betray me here—it was then-editorial assistant Karenna Gore who hit on the more alliterative, and memorable, "Slate 60." Washington Editor Jodie Allen took charge of the project, and we published our first list at the end of 1996. (This led to our first lesson: You can't count philanthropic contributions till the year is actually over. We had to revise that initial list in early 1997 to include the many December 1996 donations we missed.)

This year we celebrate the 10th edition of the Slate60, which makes it a good time to ask: Has it accomplished what we and Turner hoped it would? Yes and no. American plutocrats aren't yet clawing eyes out to land on our list. (Donors don't lobby us to boost their ranking, as some billionaires allegedly do to Forbes.) But it's worth noting that some of the biggest names on the Forbes 400—Gates, Michael Dell, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, etc.—are regulars on the Slate 60. And in the measure that matters most—cash on the barrel—we couldn't be more satisfied. During the decade of the Slate60,America has witnessed an enormous rise in philanthropy by the very wealthy.

Slate and our partners at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, who compile the data, don't take credit for that increase (at least not for most of it), but we can enumerate it. In the 1996 Slate 60, it took only a $10 million gift to make the list, and the median donation was a mere $15 million. In this edition, by contrast, it took $20 million to qualify, and the median donation was $32.5 million. In 2005, the contributions of the entire Slate 60 totaled $4.3 billion, more than three times as much as they did in 1996. In the peak year of 2001, the Slate 60 gave $12.6 billion, thanks to three billion-dollar-plus donations. (Methodology partly explains the climbing totals. How we count donations has changed slightly over time—we now include contributions to foundations and gifts that were pledged but not paid, categories excluded the first few years.)

There is an obvious reason why the mega-philanthropy measured by the Slate 60 has risen so rapidly—namely, that the rich are getting richer. The Slate list offers an excellent perspective on the sociological transformation of America's ultrarich. Over the decade, the list has tracked the rise of two new classes of donor. Wall Street and Silicon Valley tycoons have largely supplanted the industrial philanthropists of the 20th century—your Fords and Rockefellers. Investment billionaires have claimed many of the highest spots on our lists. George Soros has dropped more than $800 million on philanthropy over the past decade. Mutual-fund pioneer James Stowers and his wife, Virginia, gave away more than $1 billion in 2001, while fellow mutual-fund tycoon John Templeton deposited $550 million into his foundation. Susan Buffett bequeathed more than $2.5 billion to foundations when she died in 2004, and her widower, Warren Buffett, is expected to donate billions and billions more. (Note: Buffett is on the board of directors for the Washington Post Co., which owns Slate.)

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