The largest American charitable contributions of 2008.

Analysis of the year's biggest philanthropists.
Jan. 26 2009 6:39 AM

The 2008 Slate 60

The largest American charitable contributions of the year.

Rachael Larimore is taking your questions about the Slate 60 from 2:30 to 3:30 Wednesday on Ask a question in advance or join the live chat.

The 2008 Slate 60
Rachael Larimore Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.

One of the original goals of the Slate 60, now in its 13th year of tracking the largest philanthropic contributions of the year, was to inspire competitiveness among the nation's superwealthy: to encourage them to outdo one another not in making money but in giving it away. And whether donors were responding to the challenge or had more altruistic intentions, there's no denying that charitable giving by the wealthy has spiked dramatically in the last decade or so.

A superficial look at the 2008 list might suggest that the troubled economy has had a smaller impact on philanthropy than we might expect. In 2007, the Slate 60 comprised donations totaling $7.79 billion. In 2008, the total is $15.78 billion. (Read our methodology.) But upon closer examination, it's apparent that the breadth and depth of our economic crisis is such that even the wealthiest Americans are giving cautiously. Most obviously, the great bulk of the giving on this year's list comes from those who have died. An unprecedented eight of the top 11 gifts are bequests, including the late Leona Helmsley's $5.2 billion gift at No. 1 and the late James LeVoy Sorenson's $4.5 billion gift at No. 2. In all, 13 of the 61 contributions appearing on our list (we count ties) are bequests, accounting for $11.64 billion of the $15.78 billion total.

People tend to find comfort in familiarity during uncertain times. This seems to be the case for philanthropy, too. Education, health care, the arts, and eponymous giving—gifts that get the donors a building or school named after them—are usually big priorities among the donors we track but never more so than this year. Aside from Helmsley (whose money really is going to the dogs) and No. 3 donors Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney (whose $1 billion gift to their family foundation is intended to, among other things, increase public understanding of the problems facing us because of the growth of federal programs), most of our top donors have targeted colleges, hospitals, or other educational and medical outlets for their charity. The next few years will bring the arrival of the Perot Museum of Nature & Science (No. 33 on our list), the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County (No. 39), and the Michael Maurer School of Law at Indiana University (No. 46), just to name a few.

That is not to criticize. Education and health care are both areas in which there will always be the need for philanthropy. It's heartening to read about donors who are supporting medical research for a condition that affects them or their loved ones. Still, there is less philanthropic innovation on the 2008 list than in years past. We miss Slate 60 perennials such as eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, who have been extremely creative in their charitable giving, or Oprah Winfrey, who has used some of her millions to build an academy for girls in South Africa. Among the less typical gifts we see this year are donations by Richard Weiland and Jon Stryker to combat discrimination against gays and lesbians. Jeffrey Skoll, the founding president of eBay, uses his donations to his foundation to encourage "social entrepreneurship."

The recession we're experiencing started in December 2007, but it was only in the second half of 2008 that the economy truly plunged into crisis: failing banks, volatile markets, the need for congressional bailouts. That suggests that 2009 might be more challenging than 2008 for those who rely on philanthropy. For now, we are left to admire the generosity of those who give so much and look forward to the revival of competitive giving among the wealthiest Americans.

Click on the photos below to read about individual donors. Or you can click here to see (and search) the whole database of donors for this year and previous Slate 60s.

For the eighth time in the 13 years of the Slate 60, the list has been compiled by the staff of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. We'd like to thank them for their tremendous work, especially Maria Di Mento, who prepares the list, and Noelle Barton, Frances Borchardt, Candie Jones, Heather Joslyn, and Cassie Moore.


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