For the better part of a century, a few Gilded Age names dominated the ranks of big philanthropy.
In a matter of years, a new crop of ultra-wealthy Americans has eclipsed the old guard of philanthropic titans. With names like Soros, Gates, Bloomberg, Mercer, Koch and Zuckerberg, these new megadonors are upending long-established norms in the staid world of big philanthropy.
They have accumulated vast fortunes early in their lives. They are spending it faster and writing bigger cheques. And they are increasingly willing to take on hot-button social and political issues — on the right and left — that thrust them into the centre of contentious debates.
Plenty of billionaires are still buying sports teams, building yachts and donating to museums and hospitals. But many new philanthropists appear less interested in naming a business school after themselves than in changing the world.
“They have a problem-solving mentality rather than a stewardship mentality,” said David Callahan, founder of the website Inside Philanthropy
and author of The Givers, a book about today’s major donors. “They are not saving their money for a rainy day. They want to have impact now.”
George Soros, the hedge fund billionaire and Democratic donor, recently made public the transfer of some $18 billion to his Open Society Foundations, a sprawling effort to promote democracy and combat intolerance around the world. The gift, which essentially endowed Open Society in perpetuity, made it the second largest foundation by assets in the country. The only philanthropy
with more resources is the Bill and Melinda Gates
“We’re seeing a real changing of the guard,” said Callahan. “The top foundations, especially measured by annual giving, are more and more piloted by people who are alive.”
Having made billions and shaped the world with their companies, this new guard is setting lofty goals as they prepare to give their fortunes away. Take the Chan Zuckerberg
Initiative, established by the Facebook
co-founder Mark Zuckerberg
and his wife Priscilla Chan. It is not looking to merely improve health in the developing world. One of its aspirations is to help “cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.”
That may sound like good news all around. If a handful of billionaires want to spend their fortunes saving lives, why not simply applaud them? But as their ambitions grow, so too does their influence, meaning that for better or worse, a few billionaires are wielding considerable influence over everything from medical research to social policy to politics.
“This isn’t the government collecting taxes and deciding which social problems it wants to solve through a democratic process,” said Eileen Heisman, chief executive of the National Philanthropic Trust, a nonprofit that works with foundations. “This is a small group of people, who have made way more money than they need, deciding what issues they care about. That affects us all.”
In 2015, at the ripe old age of 31, Zuckerberg
made a momentous decision. He and Chan had just welcomed their first daughter into the world. Soon after, they pledged to give away 99 per cent of their Facebook
shares, then valued at some $45 billion, in their lifetime. “Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of all those coming into this world, not just those already here,” they wrote in a letter addressed to their daughter, posted on Facebook.
Nearly two years later, the Chan Zuckerberg
Initiative is taking shape. Structured as a limited liability corporation rather than a traditional foundation, a move the founders say give them more flexibility, the organisation is focused on three main areas: science, education and justice.
Already, the couple has committed more than half a billion dollars to create a nonprofit research center giving unrestricted funding to physicians, scientists and engineers from top California universities. They support an effort to map and identify all the cells in a healthy human body. And late last year, they pledged to spend $3 billion on preventing, curing and managing “all disease by the end of the century.”
In considering how to deploy his billions, Zuckerberg
was no doubt inspired by his friend and mentor, the Microsoft co-founder Gates.
Since its founding 2000, the Gates
Foundation has established itself as a force without peer in big philanthropy.
Not only does it have the largest endowment of any foundation, some $40 billion, but it also spends more each year, nearly $5.5 billion in 2016 alone.
The Gates’s efforts are sprawling, spanning the globe and crossing fields. Their foundation funds efforts to reduce tobacco use, combat HIV and improve education in Washington state. It has spent billions to reduce the spread of infectious diseases and malaria. And its efforts have already helped a coalition of world health organisations all but eradicate polio.
© 2017 The New York Times News Service