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.)

The tech plutocrats are even more bountiful. To name a few: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has scattered more than $400 million over the years on a variety of causes. Michael Dell and his wife gave more than $600 million to their foundation in 2003. eBay's Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, have given away nearly $400 million to their foundation. Oracle's Larry Ellison has handed out $250 million to Harvard and his medical foundation. Intel founder Gordon Moore and his wife, Betty, forked over an astonishing $5.8 billion to their foundation in 2001, plus another $300 million to Cal Tech.

Yet even these gigantic donations are dwarfed by the largesse of Bill and Melinda Gates. (Note: Melinda Gates is also on the board of directors for the Washington Post Co.) The Slate 60 had nothing to do with inspiring them, but in the late '90s, the Microsoft founder and his wife embarked on the most ambitious philanthropic campaign in history. (Read Sebastian Mallaby's introduction to this year's Slate 60  for interesting speculation about why the Gateses caught the philanthropy bug.) Today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is by far the largest in the world, spending $1.5 billion a year from an endowment of $29 billion. (Incidentally, most of the Gates' philanthropy was never included in the Slate 60. Their largest donation, the initial $17 billion endowment in 1999, occurred before our list counted gifts to foundations.)

The Gates Foundation has engaged in routine philanthropy on a huge scale—the largest private college-scholarship program ever, the Carnegie-like campaign to wire every public library to the Internet—but it has made its biggest impact by embracing the unfashionable cause of global health, funding vaccines, offering incentives to scientists to try unusual methods, subsidizing research into diseases the drug companies neglect. The Gates' experimental, risk-taking charity represents a new, increasingly popular kind of giving, one sometimes called "venture philanthropy."

Unfortunately, the Slate 60 has not always been a source for such innovation. Wealthy Americans are far more clever about making their money than about giving it away. The Slate60 chronicles tons of monogrammed university giving—endowing an already plush school with the Daddy S. Warbucks School of Business. (In each year of the Slate 60, more than half of donors have signed checks to universities.) And plenty of donors make the list by leaving their art collection to the Metropolitan Museum or local equivalent.

Every year does bring a few particularly odd or daring gifts—David and Cheryl Duffield's $200 million pledge in 1998 to find a home for every stray cat or dog; Ruth Lilly's $100 million gift to support tiny Poetry magazine (a gift Slatecriticized here); Paul Allen's fund to build a science-fiction museum; John Templeton's foundation to probe the connections between religion and science. A few—but a very few—of the list-makers have committed money to ambitious public-policy causes. On the left, George Soros has poured his fortune into building civil society in Eastern Europe, relaxing American drug laws, and helping immigrants become American citizens. And Ted Turner, practicing what he preached to Dowd, has given nearly $1 billion to the United Nations Foundation, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and other causes. On the right, Theodore Forstmann and John Walton put $100 million into helping public-school kids attend private schools.

With rare exceptions—notably the Gateses and McDonald's widow Joan Kroc, who gave more than $1 billion to the Salvation Army—the Slate 60's denizens have directed comparatively little money to the poor. (In 2000, when Arianna Huffington complained that too many of the noted donations were going to unworthy causes, Slate invited her to create a "Huffington Virtue Remix.") And almost entirely absent from the lists are celebrities who made their fortunes in sports, arts, or entertainment. Oprah Winfrey, who has lavished $150 million on her foundation in the past three years, is the anomaly.

But this is not a place for fussing or complaining. That would not be keeping with the spirit of one of the Slate 60's most important early contributors, Ann Castle. When we set out to compile the first list in 1996, we hit a brick wall. The data we needed didn't seem to exist. Then we found Ann, the director of development research at Hamilton College. At Hamilton and in an earlier job at Harvard's development office, Ann had made herself the world's authority on the giving habits of the very rich. We asked Ann to help us, and for four years she was the Slate 60, gathering, compiling, calculating, and recalculating with pit-bull persistence and a generosity of spirit as great as any of the donors she tracked. Ann died unexpectedly in early 2000, as we were finishing up the 1999 list. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which is to charity what the Wall Street Journal is to business, took over from Ann as our partner on the Slate 60, and has done a superb job. As Chris Suellentrop wrote in Slate after her death, "It is a testimony to Ann that we had to replace her with an entire newspaper."

The gifts listed on the Slate 60—wherever they go and whomever they come from—reflect the profound generosity of some of our wealthiest citizens. What is remarkable, and encouraging, about the Slate 60, is actually how little it is, compared to all the charitable giving of Americans. The $4.3 billion donated by the Slate 60 in 2005 accounts for only a tiny fraction of the $250-odd billion Americans gave away last year. We spend more than 2 percent of our GDP on private charity, making Americans among the most generous people in the world.

Research by Sonia Smith.

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