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The Billionaire's Club

By Bill Smith /

Every trade has its go-to publication. If entertainment happens to be your bailiwick, The Hollywood Reporter holds its own since inception in 1930. If business is your game, perhaps it is Forbes or, after reading this month’s column, the wisdom of Bloomberg Businessweek (the man himself figures prominently below).

In philanthropy, our go-to is the monthly publication The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  It covers the ins-and-outs of the philanthropic world and once a year, for the past two decades, the Chronicle compiles the Philanthropy 50.

This annual list of the heavy hitters in philanthropy differs this year in one very important way — for the first time ever, the top five donors on the list gave away over $1 USD billion a piece to philanthropic interests. Over the past 20 years, the list has included donors who’ve collectively contributed more than $255 USD billion to philanthropic interests of every possible ilk.

The top five this year includes many well-known names whose philanthropy has, well, become legend in many quarters.

Topping the 2019 list is Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of the United States’ biggest city, number nine on Forbes’ most recent list of the richest people in the world and currently putting his wealth to work in seeking to unseat the current occupant of the White House in Washington, D.C.

With a reported net worth of over $53 USD billion, Bloomberg is no stranger to the Philanthropy 50 list, having appeared on it no less than 15 times. In 2019, his contributions to philanthropy totaled $3.3 billion USD. As a signer of the Giving Pledge, a compact covered previously in the pages of Polo Lifestyles, Bloomberg has pledged to give away most of his fortune within his lifetime and his level of giving suggests he’s taking his commitment seriously. According to the Chronicle, Bloomberg has committed more than $9.5 billion USD to charity to date.

Bloomberg’s largest gift in 2019 reached nearly two million dollars and was directed to his alma mater, Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University. Like many of the gifts to universities made by those on the list this year, Bloomberg’s gift was focused on making a college education accessible to those who may not be able to afford it. This trend in philanthropy is designed to address the rising costs of a college education that puts the degree beyond the reach of many or saddles them with crushing debt in the process.

Following this trend in education, Number 35 on the Philanthropy 50 this year is private-equity investor Robert Smith. Smith may not be a household name, yet, but the billionaire gained much attention in 2019 when, during the commencement speech at the prominent historically black institution, Morehouse College, he announced he was paying off all student debt for the entire graduating class – a gift worth $34 million.

The number two spot on the Philanthropy 50 list this goes to Barron Hilton, heir to the Hilton Hotels empire founded by his father Conrad Hilton. Barron Hilton died in September of 2019 triggering the pledge he made in 2007 to give 97 percent of his fortune to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The total gift amounted to $2.4 USD billion and raised the endowment of the Foundation to a whopping $6.3 billion USD according to Business Insider.

As you no doubt noticed, this month’s edition of Polo Lifestyles focuses on future and technology. Philanthropy has benefited immensely from the latest technological revolution. To the point, third on the list of those giving more than a billion in 2019 is former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. He and his wife, Wendy, have established diverse platforms for their giving and last year it amounted to $1.3 billion USD. Their grant investment is equally diverse but focused on progressive causes and continue the couple’s long-term strategy to invest in and bolster the pipeline for young and emerging societal leaders.

In 2019, Amazon may have bested out Walmart as the globe’s leading retailer for the first time, but that fortune in brick and mortal retail boosted a Walmart heir to the league of billion-dollar plus philanthropists all the same. Jim Walton, heir and head of the Walton family interests, gave away $1.2 billion USD in 2019 to a diverse group of causes and nonprofits. He was number four overall on the Chronicle’s Philanthropy 50 for 2019.

Finally, another planned gift, like that of Barron Hilton, created the fifth and final philanthropist giving more than a billion dollars in 2019. Rather obscure in life and definitely opaque in terms of his philanthropy, Thomas Lord, longtime leader of the family’s Lord Corporation, died in 1989 and the sale of the company in 2019 led to the distribution of $1.04 billion USD in gifts to the University of Southern California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University, and programs at the Cleveland Clinic, according to the Chronicle.

All combined, the top five this year contributed $9.3 billion USD to philanthropy, an amount that exceeded the entire giving of the top 50 in 2018. Without doubt, it was a mammoth year for philanthropy for America’s richest individuals.

And in case you were wondering where some other notables were on the list – Bill and Melinda Gates came in at number seven with gifts of $589 million USD, Pierre and Pam Omidyar came in at number nine with charitable giving of $470 million USD and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg was at the number 17 spot with $128 million USD in philanthropic dollars.

May 2020 yield as much giving to solve problems and strengthen our people and places.


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