ESG Investing

Top 50 US donors in 2021: Where the Money Went


Donations from the top 50 philanthropists in the United States reached an impressive $27.7 billion in 2021—a 12.1% jump from the $24.7 billion given by the biggest philanthropists in 2020.

Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates topped the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of 50 big hitters in 2021 with an astounding $15 billion donated between them to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fight global poverty, disease, and inequity. This by far accounted for the lion’s share of the $17.5 billion that was gifted to foundations by the biggest philanthropists during 2021.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy points out that more than half of the donors that make up the Philanthropy 50 made their money in either finance or technology. It indicates that this goes some way toward explaining why Washington state and California, with their vast tech hubs, won the largest proportion of all. Next in line was New York state, which hosts the global financial center that is New York City.

Biggest Gifts in 2021

Michael Bloomberg was second on the list, with donations totaling $1.7 billion during 2021. However, a securities filing later showed that Tesla CEO Elon Musk had made gifts of some $5.7 billion. Among the other biggest philanthropists, those toward the top of the list included Pershing Square Capital Management founder William Ackman and his wife Neri Oxman, with $1.2 billion, as well as Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who together gave $1.05 billion.

Although the $15 billion allocated to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation counted as the biggest single gift, traditional US universities and medical facilities were generally the next major destinations for the largest individual donations. For instance, Nike cofounder Philip Knight and his wife Penny gave $500 million to the University of Oregon in order to expand the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. Soros Fund Management chair George Soros matched this, gifting another $500 million to Bard College. Insurance services company founder Patrick Ryan and his wife Shirley gifted $480 million to Northwestern University.

Traditional US education and medical beneficiaries took the focus of the top 50 philanthropists in 2021.

Return to Business as Usual

Although the top 50 philanthropists raised their overall contribution from the prior year, the destinations for the big gifts in 2021 proved something of an anticlimax for various charity advocates.

There was some disappointment that the type of beneficiaries for the largest gifts was narrower than in 2020, marking a return to the historical norm where mainstream health and educational institutions enjoy the largest spoils. The broader giving witnessed in 2020 amid the pandemic and protests may not have encouraged further trends supporting food banks, historically Black colleges and universities, racial justice groups, and human service organizations.

Instead, traditional US education and medical beneficiaries took the focus of the top 50 philanthropists in 2021. Despite the persistence of the coronavirus pandemic and racial inequality, nearly 86% of the funds contributed by donors on the list—totaling $23.8 billion—went to colleges and universities, hospitals, foundations, and donor-advised funds. As a result, many items on the ESG wishlist left the spotlight in 2021. These gaps can help indicate where more support from impact investors may be needed in 2022.

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