The Americans Who Gave Away the Most Money in 2012

February 11, 2013
Forbes Magazine

Who gave away the most money of any American last year? Warren Buffett. He donated more than three times as much to charity than anyone else: $3.084 billion. Still, big philanthropic gifts were down for the year, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which just released its thirteenth annual Philanthropy 50 list of U.S. donors who pledged the most dollars in 2012.

The total committed by the top 50 donors last year: $7.4 billion, down from the previous year’s total of $10.4 billion. Though Buffett’s gift accounted for a sizable chunk of the year’s total, in 2011 the number was skewed upward by a giant gift of $6 billion from the late agribusiness heiress Margaret A. Cargill.

Buffett, 82, donated to three foundations run by his children, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in Decatur, Ill., run by his oldest son, the NoVo Foundation in New York, run by younger son Peter, and the Sherwood Foundation in Omaha, run by daughter Susan. The foundations fund a range of causes from conflict resolution in the Congo to Iowa food banks (the Howard G. Buffett Foundation) and anti sex-trafficking efforts in India (NoVo).

Buffett is No. 2 on the Forbes 400, with a fortune of $46 billion as of our most recent tally. As the originator, together with Bill Gates, of the Giving Pledge, a commitment to donate at least half of a donor’s fortune before they die, he has already given huge sums. He has pledged to give away 99% of his fortune. Forbes calculates that Buffett has donated at least $9.5 billion in shares of Berkshire Hathaway to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That sum does not include 2012’s $3 billion pledge to his children’s philanthropies.

This year a record number of donors, three (couples), are under the age of 40, up from two the previous year. In fact the Nos. 2 and 3 on the list are under 40. The total donated by philanthropists under 40 is $1.145 billion, or 15.4% of the total 2012 donations. “We’ve just never seen this in philanthropy,” says Chronicle editor Stacy Palmer. “Usually we have pictures of old white men on the top of the list.”

The No. 2 donors are Mark Zuckerberg, 28, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, 27, who made headlines in December when Zuckerberg joined the Giving Pledge and announced he was donating 18 million Facebook shares, or nearly $500 million, to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which makes grants to low-income families to prevent foreclosures, to teacher training programs, to after-school and summer math training programs, and to aid for immigrants, like English instruction and legal services. The foundation also helps build affordable housing and supports services for the homeless like shelters and food banks. Zuckerberg is No. 36 on the Forbes 400, with a fortune of $9.6 billion at last count.

No. 3 on this year’s list: John and Laura Arnold, both in their 30s, who gave away a total of $423 million, including $251.2 to their Laura and John Arnold Foundation in Houston and the rest to other groups. A former trader for Enron, Arnold ran a top-performing hedge fund, Centaurus Advisors, with $5 billion in assets. In May 2012 he announced he was returning money to his investors and retiring from the fund at age 38 to pursue other interests. Arnold is No. 132 on the Forbes 400, with a fortune of $3 billion. He and Laura, a former corporate lawyer, created their own foundation to improve the criminal justice, education and pension systems. Among their causes: charter schools, a push for merit pay for teachers, efforts to curb false eyewitness identification, and research to spur lawmakers to firm up government pension programs. They also launched the Giving Library, a collection of videos featuring more than 250 charities, to help other philanthropists learn about non profits. “Philanthropy should be entrepreneurial, not institutional or bureaucratic,” says their website.

Members of the Forbes 400 take up 22 of the slots on the Philanthropy 50 list. Two major names in philanthropy are surprisingly absent: Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates. Palmer explains that this is due to the Chronicle’s methodology. It’s not because these huge donors aren’t giving. But rather, they have made significant pledges to their foundations in previous years. Even if the money flows out this year, the Chronicle doesn’t count it because it likely has been tallied on another year’s list. A spokesman at Bloomberg Philanthropies told the Chronicle that giving from Bloomberg LP totaled $331.5 million last year; the money went to 1,200 nonprofits working in public health, the arts, education, the environment and government innovation. And in January 2013, Bloomberg announced that he was giving a $350 million gift to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University.

As for the Gates’, they gave their foundation $469 million last year, according to the Chronicle, but those funds went toward paying off a $3.3 billion pledge the couple made in 2004.

One more note on Warren Buffett: Back in 2006, he pledged Berkshire Hathaway stock valued at more than $30 billion to the Gates Foundation. He has been making annual payments toward that commitment since. Last year he gave shares worth $1.5 billion.

Another big donor who’s not on this year’s Philanthropy 50 list: Ted Turner, who gave $50 million last year to the United Nations. But that gift went toward a pledge he made in 1997 to establish the United Nations Foundation and the Better World Fund, both targeted at strengthening the UN.