Rachael Larimore discusses the Slate 60 index of top philanthropists.

Rachael Larimore discusses the Slate 60 index of top philanthropists.

Rachael Larimore discusses the Slate 60 index of top philanthropists.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Feb. 14 2008 3:45 PM

Give It Up!

Rachael Larimore takes readers' questions about the Slate 60 index of top philanthropists.

Slate's Rachael Larimore was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Feb. 14, to discuss the Slate 60 index of 2007's top American charitable donors. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Rachael Larimore: Greetings, everyone! I'm looking forward to answering your questions about Slate 60 and philanthropy. Let's get started

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Northwest Washington: Is an annual list fair in that Buffet pledged more than $40 billion last year and doesn't show up this year? Sadly, Helmsley was more charitable in death than she ever was known for in life.

Rachael Larimore: That's an excellent question, and I'm glad you asked it. Philanthropy is a tricky thing to track and the Slate 60's methodology has evolved over the years.

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Beginning with our list published in 2007, which marked the biggest gifts of 2006, we settled on counting gifts and pledges, as we've always done, but not counting payments on previous pledges. Doing so is effectively double counting. If we credit Warren Buffet for $43 billion in 2006, as we did, and then give him credit for the (I believe) $1.7 billion payment he made this year, it would create the impression that he's given even more than he had.

As far as Leona Helmsley, yes, that was an interesting bequest. It goes to show that sometimes you can never truly know people.

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Washington: Why doesn't Slate list the worst contributors of the year? There must be a way to find out who among the country's richest people does not give as much as they ought to to charitable causes. Maybe this would shame these penny-pinchers into giving more.

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Rachael Larimore: It's funny you mention that. When Michael Kinsley, Slate's founding editor, started the Slate 60, it was precisely to shame the super-rich into giving more of their income. And the goal of the Slate 60 is to promote giving in a positive way—to say, "See here, look what these people are doing."

I think, though, we'd like to avoid getting egg on our face. All these years, we could have been shaming Leona Helmsley, for example, only to learn that she was planning to make her charitable trust one of the largest in the country upon her death.

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MerityRabbit: I don't mean to look a gift horse in the mouth ... well, yes, I guess I do ... it's extremely generous of these people to leave huge chunks of money to foundations and whatnot, but think about how much money these people still have. Even the poorest of the billionaires (kind of an oxymoron, right?) still are wallowing in dough and a life of luxury. I'd say the real giving begins when it actually hurts the givers' own pocketbook and makes a dent in their lives.

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Rachael Larimore: You raise a good point. Interestingly, some of the newer generation of philanthropists do plan to give almost all of their money away. Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, have vowed to give away almost all of their fortune. And eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and his wife Pam, have made a similar pledge.

One thing to take into consideration, though. If you look at the names on the Slate 60, many, many of the donors are self-made billionaires. They've worked extremely hard to get where they are, and have often improved the lives of thousands of other people through creating jobs. And they're still working. If they wake up one morning and give up 97 percent of their fortune, they're hampering their own ability to create more wealth and opportunity for others, and more philanthropy down the line.

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Washington: Just want to say thanks to Slate for producing the Slate 60—I work for a nonprofit, and it's a huge resource for us. We scour the list every year in search of big donors who we might be able to approach in the future if their interests appear to line up with our mission. So I've always been curious—was this one of the uses Slate had in mind when creating the index?

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Rachael Larimore: Glad that our list can help your organization. I wasn't around when we started the Slate 60, but I'd like to think that being a resource for nonprofits was one of the happy but unintended benefits.

Our founding editor, Michael Kinsley, got the idea for the Slate 60 after reading a quote from Ted Turner in a Maureen Dowd column, in which Turner complained that the Forbes 400 was hurting philanthropy. he worried that the superwealthy were reluctant to give money away and hurt their standing on the list.

He thought a list that rewarded the biggest philanthropists might serve to offset any pain those donors felt from dropping down on the Forbes 400.

Good luck and thank you for your charitable work!

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: With so much suffering in the world and so many people in need, it seems strange to me that rich people often give so generously to universities. Why not disease-based charities or overseas help? What is the attraction of giving to a university? Is it just to get buildings named after them?

Rachael Larimore: That's a good question. We've got another similar question, so I'm going to try to reply to both at the same time.

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Southeast Washington: How do the wealthy justify multimillion dollar gifts to entities like performing-arts groups and museums when there are more urgents causes, such as disease research, antipoverty efforts, and equal-justice task forces? Seems like a lot of money goes to things that are really just for the rich themselves to enjoy.

Rachael Larimore: When Slate first set out to do the Slate 60, we enlisted the help of a woman named Ann Castle, who compiled the list for the first four years before passing away. After her death, Slate's Jack Shafer wrote this: "Ann wouldn't tolerate cynical talk about philanthropy: It was important to recognize and praise generosity, she would say. All generosity."

I've wondered a lot about why donors choose their targets, and sometimes it does make you scratch your head. In some respects, especially in regards to university giving, I wonder if its not generational. Some of the older donors that make the Slate 60 grew up in the early 20th century, or the Depression, when a college education was not as easily accessible as it is today. While younger philanthropists, who might have been able to take college for granted, do focus on anti-poverty efforts.

Disease research and medical giving was actually huge this year—our No. 3 and No. 4 donors both gave all or most of their donations to medical causes.

As for other causes, donors might not want to get political, or, in terms of international giving in the developing world, they might fear that their hard-earned money will end up in the hands of dictators or corrupt bureaucrats.

So, while I've shaken my head at a gift or two while working on the Slate 60, I try to keep Ann Castle's guiding philosophy in mind.

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washingtonpost.com: The 1999 Slate 60(Slate, Feb. 28, 2000)

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Reading, Pa.: Rachael: It's great to see those who are doing well helping out good causes. What percentage of the givers do you estimate are doing it for purely altruistic reasons and how many do it for the tax benefits?

Rachael Larimore: I'm terrible at math, so I won't venture a guess as to a percentage regarding who's being altruistic and who's in for the tax relief.

But I'd like to take a few examples from the top of the Slate 60 to make a case for the altruistic-minded. John and Karen Huntsman were No. 3 on the list, with over $600 million earmarked to cancer research and assistance. Mr. Huntsman has battled cancer several times in his life, and his donation seems like a striking form of empathy.

Denny Sanford, who, we discovered yesterday, had made even bigger donations than we'd realized, has focused his giving on providing health care in Sioux Falls, S.D. Excellent medical care is harder to come by in the Great Plains, because the population is smaller, and he seems very eager to provide for the well-being of those around him.

And George Soros, at No. 5, is very involved in his foundations.

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Omaha, Neb.: Warren Buffett led the Slate 60 list last year, I believe, because of his gargantuan donations. Was that just a one-time thing, or does he merely appear lower down on the list this year for donations?

Also: What's the difference between the two Slate 60 lists for pledges and for donations? Can someone make the lists in two different years on essentially the same donation by pledging one year and then following through in a future year? How does all this work?

Rachael Larimore: This year, for the first time, we decided not to differentiate between pledges and donations. But, to answer your second question, we actually updated our methodology to make sure donors weren't counted twice for the same gift.

What we do—actually, what the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University does, because they compile the list for us—is to track all donations from individuals, whether they be gifts or pledges, that go directly to beneficiaries or to foundations. We no longer count payments on pledges—to avoid double-counting—and we do not count gifts from foundations. That's also to avoid double counting. If Bill and Melinda Gates donate $5 billion to their foundation, we count that. If, the next year, they make out big payments, to count that would effectively count the same donation twice.

So, in regards to Warren Buffet, while he was far and away our No. 1 last year, he won't make the list again for any payments on that pledge. If he makes further donations that qualify, he most certainly would.

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Rachael Larimore: I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. Thanks for all of your great questions, and for your interest in the Slate 60.