When it comes to philanthropy, the very rich are different from run-of-the-mill donors, and not only because they have more money. Based on their Giving Pledge letters, at least, they donate less to religious groups than the population overall, and more directly to education, medical research and hospitals—contributions that are often reflected in institutions’ names like the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (housing the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology), the Carl C. Icahn Center for Science and the Icahn Scholar Program at a New England prep school, not to mention Icahn House East and Icahn House West homeless shelters in New York. Projects “where we live and work” receive a sizable slice of the pie, just as they do for humbler folk, although the billionaires’ undertakings are predictably on a far grander scale than your average contribution to United Way.
What follows is a snapshot of some of the more intriguing donations.
Big money, big issues. Ted Turner made a splash more than 15 years ago when, as he writes, “my $1 billion pledge was heard around the world and the United Nations Foundation was born” (and, he reminds readers, he anticipated the Giving Pledge by getting “out in front of the parade”). His foundation’s brief is to help the UN tackle issues including climate change, global health, peace and security, women’s empowerment and poverty eradication. Also working on a global scale, Richard Branson has sought to find ways to resolve international conflicts (through a group, The Elders, that includes Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter) and to protect the oceans (through another group, The Ocean Elders, that includes Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau). Jeff Skoll of eBay takes on some of the same issues, but does it by underwriting social entrepreneurs like Paul Farmer and making movies such as “An Inconvenient Truth.” Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British mobile communications entrepreneur, launched a foundation to encourage good governance and leadership in Africa, using an index to evaluate national governments and issuing prizes to heads of state who follow democratic practices. “It is a moral duty and African custom to look after your extended family,” he writes. “I felt my extended family reached from Cairo to Cape Town.”
Close to home. Many of the Giving Pledge letter writers emphasize their desire to give to projects to improve lives in their hometowns. While the Pacific Northwest, as the home of Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen, has been singularly blessed, and Michael Bloomberg is only one of New York’s many resident billionaires, Detroit, Houston and less glamorous cities have their share of local philanthropists. Atlanta has benefited from the attention of Home Depot cofounders Bernie Marcus (the Georgia Aquarium, the Marcus Autism Center) and Arthur Blank (the Atlanta BeltLine, a network of paths, parks and transit; and childhood anti-obesity and education reforms in Georgia). Walter Scott, Jr., a construction contractor in Omaha, is investing in the local zoo—and reminding his fellow Omahan that “there’s still room for a Buffet exhibit. Call me when you’re looking for an idea!” On other continents, mining magnate Andrew Forrest is working for sustainable improvements in the lives of “our first Australians,” and industrialist Victor Pinchuk is supporting education, healthcare and the arts in Ukraine.
Close to the heart (and other organs). Many of the letter writers are committed to combatting some disease—think Gates and AIDS, malaria, rotavirus—but few sound as fervent as Jon Huntsman, the businessman and onetime Republican presidential contender whose mother’s death led him decades ago to “pledge to give my entire fortune to curing cancer. . . . My duty is to make sure cancer is vanquished.” First-hand experience is inspiring others to fight mental illness, neurofibromatosis, diabetes.
Not every who’s taken the pledge lists his or her beneficiaries—or, for that matter, has begun to disburse significant funds. Some of the younger billionaires, such as Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, admit that they haven’t yet identified the causes to which they want to contribute. Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, the undergarment company, notes that she is focused mostly on growing her business, an effort that should eventually “pay even greater dividends to help women . . . in an even bigger way.” And, interestingly, Buffett, one of the biggest philanthropists of all, makes no mention of the way he’s directed his money. That’s because he channels his contributions primarily through the Gates Foundation. As he notes in his letter, with typical modesty and clarity, “this pledge does not leave me contributing the most precious asset, which is time.”