The 50 largest US donors have given or pledged nearly $28 billion in 2021 – Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates account for $15 billion of that total

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David Campbell, Binghamton University, State University of New York; Elizabeth J. Dale, University of Seattle, and Jasmine McGinnis Johnson, George Washington University

(THE CONVERSATION) The 50 Americans who donated or pledged the most to charity in 2021 have pledged to give a total of US$27.7 billion to hospitals, universities, museums and more, an increase of 12 % over 2020 levels, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s latest annual tally of such donations.

More than half of this money came from two particularly important donors: Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates. Shortly before their divorce became final, in August 2021, they announced plans to add $15 billion to their foundation’s coffers.

Philanthropy experts David Campbell, Elizabeth Dale and Jasmine McGinnis Johnson assess what these donations mean, the possible motivations behind them, and what they hope to see in the future in terms of charitable giving in the United States.

What trends are emerging globally?

Elizabeth Dale: First, let’s recognize who’s missing: MacKenzie Scott. The novelist and billionaire publicly shared that she gave more than $2.7 billion in the first half of 2021. She later changed course, choosing not to disclose how much money she gave in the second half, nor the organizations she supported, as an effort to divert media attention. The Chronicle said it left her out because neither she nor her consultants provided the requested details.

If the publication had included her, even if it was just the freebies she had given for half the year, she would have taken second place again. Scott was only behind her ex-husband, Jeff Bezos, on the Chronicle’s 2020 list.

In 2018, before their divorce, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates topped the list together, but they weren’t on the 2019 list at all.

Tracking where donations go, even for the largest donations, is an imperfect science. Academics, journalists and other experts must rely on publicly available information and details that donors themselves provide to compile this data, and full details are not always available. For example, even in this list, we do not know everything about these gifts, how much has already been given and how the organizations will use this money.

Jasmine McGinnis Johnson: Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many foundations and philanthropists were thinking more critically about the appropriate way to fund racial equity and social justice nonprofits.

In 2020, these donations totaled $66 billion, making it the 14th priority of the country’s top 50 donors. In 2021, donations aimed at reducing racism and supporting Black-led organizations did not make the list of these donors’ top 20 funding priorities.

With police brutality continuing unabated and the growth of self-help organizations focused on race and social justice, I find this ebb of interest surprising.

However, I also see some reason for hope in other research completed in 2021.

Many Americans, especially people of color, donate to racial justice causes. In 2020, for example, 16% of all households donated to these causes, up from 13% in 2019.

David Campbell: Top donors responded to the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, sharply increasing their donations to social service organizations, including food banks and housing groups. In 2021, these donations have declined so much that food banks and housing did not make the top 20 list for top donors. One explanation for this may be that when seismic events influence donations, these effects diminish over time.

Consistent with years past, these wealthy donors have emphasized higher education and health-related giving, donating to colleges, universities, hospitals, and medical research.

What should the public know about the top two donors of 2021?

Dale: With an endowment valued at over $50 billion, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has, by far, more assets than any other US institution of its kind.

The foundation, established in 2000, has come under increasing scrutiny than before, particularly with regard to its bureaucratic and data-driven approach. It also has four new board members who joined the board after billionaire investor Warren Buffett left in 2021.

Melinda French Gates’ future role in the foundation is uncertain. She could step down as a director in 2023 if she and Bill Gates determine they can no longer work together.

Campbell: Since its inception, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has distributed more than $60 billion to causes related to eradicating disease and reducing poverty and inequality around the world.

In 2021, it announced plans to spend $2.1 billion over five years on women’s economic empowerment and leadership, and to improve the health and family planning of women and girls.

The foundation has done a lot of work on K-12 education in the United States — with mixed results, as the Gates themselves acknowledged in 2018. The foundation disbursed $6.7 billion in 2021, the highest amount to date for a single year.

What concerns do you have?

Campbell: The top 50 donors in 2021 include just 14 of the many billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge, a pledge by some of the world’s wealthiest people to “devote the majority of their wealth to charitable causes.” To date, more than 230 individuals and couples have taken this step.

Similarly, only 21 of the Forbes 400 richest Americans have made it onto the Philanthropy 50. I’d like to know why more of the wealthiest Americans, including some who have pledged their wealth, don’t weren’t among the top 50 givers of 2021. For billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge, it’s worth asking why they’re waiting. What advantage do they see in giving later rather than earlier?

Dale: The $2.65 billion in donations from these wealthy Americans to donor-directed funds is double 2020 levels and almost 10 times higher than in 2019. Both donor-directed funds – financial accounts that people use to donate money to the charities of their choice when they are ready to do so – and foundations are intermediaries for donations that offer little transparency and may store funds intended for the use of non-profit organizations.

Most wealthy donors receive tax deductions and other benefits, such as public recognition, when they initially make large donations. But it can often take years for their money to reach charities.

It is difficult, however, to separately track money given directly to charities from funds that are earmarked for future charitable use.

As more donors, including some of America’s wealthiest, give to charities through donor-advised funds instead of traditional foundations, calls to regulate them more tightly are growing. stronger.

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What do you expect to see in 2022 and beyond?

Dale: Scott has certainly caused philanthropic shockwaves over the past two years, and it’s still too early to tell what effect it’s having.

I hope these donors and wealthy individuals not on this list will begin to address the concerns of the wider public. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, issues of race, ethnicity, gender and inequality, climate change and protecting our democracy are not going away.

Johnson: The fact that social and racial justice was not a top priority for top donors in 2021 makes me wonder to what extent concerns about systemic inequality, sparked by the events of 2020, will remain a top priority for top donors. donors in the future.

Conversations between wealthy donors and big foundations about race, income inequality, and vulnerability exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly persisted. And Scott still supports justice-focused causes, as a gift announced by its recipient in February 2022 makes clear. Scott gave $133.5 million to Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that serves academic needs. , economic and other of students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

It remains to be seen to what extent other major US donors will follow his example.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded The Conversation US and funds The Conversation internationally.

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