The same goes for several other big donors on the new list. The top benefactor left most of her wealth to a sort of Closed Society Institute—a foundation that promotes strict limits on immigration (and, to be fair, many environmental causes). The Gates Foundation is organized around a list of the top killer diseases in the poor world; it aims to battle each of them in turn, so that the 25-year gap in life expectancy between the poor and the rich world can be reduced decisively. Pierre Omidyar and his wife donated $103 million of eBay wealth to Tufts University, which they attended. But they stipulated that the money had to be invested in micro-lending projects in the poor world, so blending a conventional gesture of gratitude with a shot of change-the-world ambition.
How much can such charities achieve? Compared with public-sector institutions, their pockets are shallow. Even the Gates Foundation, whose endowment supports a bit over $1 billion in annual grants, looks small next to an organization like the World Bank, which lends $20 billion a year, or to U.S. development aid programs, which give out almost as much as the World Bank does. But charities can nonetheless be path-breaking. Unlike public-sector institutions, they are free of deadening political oversight; unlike private companies, they are free of obligation to the bottom line. Economists think a lot about how market mechanisms can correct the failures of sluggish government and how government can correct the failures of markets. Dynamic charitable foundations have a shot at correcting both failures simultaneously.
Consider the conundrum of medicines for poor countries. Profit-seeking companies don't make medicines for people with near-zero consumer power. But the clunky public sector can't do much better, because government budgets are fickle: One year they may stress AIDS drugs, but the next year they're liable to switch focus to democracy building or the avian flu virus. As a result, governments have failed to create incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in drug discovery for poor countries, or even in manufacturing capacity for remedies that have already been invented. Both private and public sector have proved unequal to the challenge.
Then along comes the Gates Foundation. It has plunked down a total of $1.5 billion to buy vaccines, enough to tell manufacturers that if they invest in production they can be sure to find a buyer. Companies have duly responded: The ranks of big vaccine manufacturers quickly jumped from three to 12 after the first big grant, seven years ago. At its best, philanthropy blends money with risk-taking creativity. Some future contributor to Slate will look back at the pledges on this year's list and determine which had the most impact. But there is another side to philanthropy as well: The sheer act of giving has a moral power, especially when done in relative obscurity. Who had heard of K. Raymond Clark, a Chicago lawyer who left $29 million to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Or of Oscar Boonshoft, an airforce engineer who took up commodities investing in retirement, and who gave nearly as much to Wright State University's School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio? In an era of rising inequality, in which an inordinate share of the fruits of economic growth flow to the very top, it's good to be reminded that individual fortunes frequently turn out to have inspiring social purpose.
Slate would like to thank the Chronicle of Philanthropy, especially Maria Di Mento, who researched the list and wrote the biographical vignettes, Heather Joslyn, who edited the list, and Marty Michaels, who assisted Joslyn.