Fund Raising

College Benefactors Lead 'Philanthropy 50' Ranking of 2011's Top Donors

February 06, 2012

As the stock market surged last year, so did the charitable giving of the super wealthy. America's top 50 donors gave a total of $10.4-billion in 2011, up from $3.3-billion the previous year, according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy ranking, released on Monday, of people who gave the most in 2011.

Nineteen of the donors gave to colleges, more than the number who supported any other cause. Of those, 10 provided support to institutions that were not their alma maters. Altogether, the 19 donors gave colleges more than $1.5-billion.

Margaret A. Cargill, an agribusiness heiress, topped the list with a $6-billion bequest to two foundations she set up to support the arts, the environment, disaster relief, and other causes. Ms. Cargill died in 2006, but the foundations were not able to liquidate her assets until last year.

While her gift was a key reason for last year's increase, the numbers in the study still point to encouraging signs that donors are resuming their giving as the economy recovers.

Twenty-nine people on the list donated $50-million or more, compared with 22 in 2010. Thirty-two donors were new to the list in 2011. The amount of the smallest gift rose to $26-million, up from $20-million in 2010. And last year's median gift was $61-million, a healthy jump from the $41.4-million in 2010.

"Consumer confidence is up, business confidence is up modestly," said Eli Broad, the real-estate mogul who last year gave $27-million to his foundations and ranked No. 49 on the list. "If that continues, people will open their purses wider."

Nonetheless, wealthy people still aren't feeling as generous as in pre-recession times. The median gift from donors on the list was some $14-million less than the $74.7-million median in 2007.

College Gifts

The philanthropists on The Chronicle's Philanthropy 50 list are a mix of old money and new, famous and unfamiliar names, longtime charity patrons and those fresh to public displays of largess.

The No. 2 spot went to the late William S. Dietrich II, a steel executive. He left $500-million to a foundation that will largely benefit universities, including a $265-million gift to Carnegie Mellon University.

The Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, the financier George Soros, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York rounded out the top five.

Among the highlights for the college donors were:

  • Duke University received three gifts from donors on the list, more than any single college or other nonprofit organization. It received the biggest donation, $50-million, from Bruce and Marsha Karsh, whose fortune comes from investing. An additional $26-million came from Jack and Barbara Bovender; Mr. Bovender retired in 2009 as head of the Hospital Corporation of America, and his wife was a nurse at Duke's hospital. The insitution also received $13.7-million from the financier David M. Rubenstein.
  • Porter B. Byrum, a 91-year-old lawyer and businessman in Charlotte, N.C., gave $40-million to Wake Forest University, where he earned a law degree. He also provided $20.9-million apiece to Queens University of Charlotte and to Wingate University, both in North Carolina. All three donations came from the sale of a Charlotte shopping center that he had planned to leave to the colleges when he died, but he decided he wanted to see them prosper from the donation.
  • Two donors made big gifts they said they hoped would help students in the developing world. Robert and Dorothy King provided $150-million to help Stanford University's business school develop training programs for business entrepreneurs from developing countries. Mr. King, an investor, is an alumnus of the business school. Gustave and Rita Hauser provided $40-million to help Harvard make teaching innovations that would extend its reach to students in developing countries. The couple both graduated from Harvard Law School.

Savvy Fund Raising

The dominance of colleges on the list is in part a result of how important higher education is to many wealthy donors. But philanthropists say it is also a testament to savvy college leaders and smart fund raisers. Take the businessman John Malone's route to becoming a Yale donor whose support thus far has totaled $80-million.

"The first time Yale hit me up for a contribution, I scratched my head and said, 'Yale's got plenty of money,'" recalled Mr. Malone, a graduate of the college. That was in the mid-1990s, and Yale's president, Richard C. Levin, had visited Mr. Malone to ask for money for the business school.

The proposal fell on the wrong set of ears. Mr. Malone, a libertarian and free-market supporter, said he told the university chief: "How can you have a business school if you don't believe in capitalism?"

The next time Mr. Levin visited, he asked for financial support of the engineering school. An engineering major who believes that people with technical skills create businesses and jobs, Mr. Malone was intrigued. Talks with a fund raiser convinced him that Yale would use his gift wisely: The institution didn't have unrealistic ideas about becoming "another MIT," said Mr. Malone. And it had a plan to integrate engineering and medical disciplines.

Of course, Mr. Levin and Yale were tapping into the right giving vein with Mr. Malone, not trying to create a whole new one.

Donors, said Mr. Malone, "will do what's in their enlightened self-interest and in their heart."

Ms. Di Mento is a staff writer and Ms. Preston is a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.