The 60 largest American charitable contributions of 2005.

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

The Slate 60 Turns 10

The 60 largest American charitable contributions of 2005.

Ted Turner always got a buzz from giving. I had breakfast with him once in a sedate Washington hotel, and he explained how charity could juice him. He'd made his first big donation back in the 1980s, and his hand had trembled uncontrollably as he signed away his chances of becoming the world's richest man. But having given money away once, he found he wanted to give more; charity became compulsive. As Turner explained this, he yelled and waved his arms around for emphasis, alarming the sleepy breakfasters at nearby tables. Giving could be an addiction, like alcohol or drugs, Turner proclaimed. "Like sex!" he roared enthusiastically.

Turner worried that other plutocrats might not lose their virginity. They were too obsessed with clawing their way up the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans to discover charity's delights; they needed some kind of spur to force a shift in their priorities. Hence Turner's suggestion, in an interview with Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, that someone create a list of philanthropic donors. A list means a competition; and a competition means winners; and the prospect of winning is a certain magnate magnet. In 1996, this magazine responded with its first Slate 60 list. One decade on, here is the 10th one.

Turner's hunch may have been right: Whether by coincidence or not, philanthropy has blossomed since Slate's list was created. In 1996 the top donor gave away $100 million, or $121 million in 2005 dollars. But last year's top donor, Cordelia Scaife May, gave away $404 million, and the list (with 63 donors, counting ties) totaled $4.3 billion. Admittedly, the criteria for including donations have been relaxed, as explained here. One can see Turner's hunch playing out in a different way as well: in the behavior of individual moguls. Back in 1996, Bill Gates wrote that: "Giving away money effectively is almost as hard as earning it in the first place. I'm many years away from wanting to divert a lot of my attention in that direction." But two years later Gates and his immediate family gave away $33 million, and soon that donation adrenaline was coursing through his veins; his pulse quickened and his breath grew short; and every competitive fiber in his exceedingly competitive being wanted to be the best philanthropist possible. By 2000, Gates had emerged as the world's most generous philanthropist.

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Giving while still relatively young was not the way old-timers did it. John D. Rockefeller, America's pre-eminent philanthropist until Gates gave four times more than him in inflation-adjusted terms, waited until just before his 70th birthday before making his first blockbuster donation. But Turner was barely 60, and still behaving like a man of 30, when he pledged $1 billion to rescue the United Nations from debt and disrepute in 1999. Gates was 45 when he and his wife set up the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

You can trace the influence of these role models in the Slate 60, though not right at the top of it. Aside from Gates himself, who comes second in the new list, the top slots are occupied by donors of, or in some cases beyond, Rockefellerish maturity. As we have seen, the year's biggest donation came from a bequest left by a 76-year-old heiress; slots three to five went to donors in their 70s; the sixth went to David Rockefeller, who continues a fine family tradition by giving at the age of 90. But after that some youthfulness creeps in. The No. 8 slot goes to Pierre Omidyar, the 38-year-old co-founder of eBay, and his wife, who gave away $134 million. Oprah Winfrey is giving generously of her fortune at the age of 52. Paul Allen and Charles Simonyi, Microsoft billionaires both, have also acquired the philanthropic habit when still in their 50s.

The most interesting philanthropy harks back, again, to Ted Turner. The loud man started out by making grants to schools that he and his sons had attended, then he moved on to the environment and to charities in Atlanta, CNN's hometown. But his famous plunge—a plunge almost as bold as the idea of a 24-hour news network—was his pledge for the United Nations. That pledge supported a foundation, set up in 1999, that financed a successful lobbying effort to end Congress' refusal to pay U.N. dues and generally pressed to turn the United States into a better U.N. member. Like George Soros, whose Open Society Institute championed political opening in ex-Communist Europe as well as causes such as the decriminalization of drugs in the United States, Turner was out to change the world with his philanthropy. No wonder he got excited.