Top 50 Charitable Donors in 2020

William Smith

Philanthropy Contributor

Once again, it is the time of year when Polo Lifestyles’ March issue coincides with the release of The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 50, an annual review of the 50 top American philanthropists and how they spent in the previous year.

And spend they did. Almost $9 billion more than The Chronicle reported among this elite group compared to 2019.

According to the report, a total of $24.7 billion was given to nonprofits in 2020 and there were some notable shifts in giving, not the least of these having been precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the eruption of focus on racial justice issues after the murder of George Floyd.

Topping the list for 2020 is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who early in 2020, made a $10 billion dollar gift to create the Bezos Earth Fund, a grant-making initiative to combat climate change. In November, $791 million in an initial round of grants were made from the Earth Fund to 16 organizations, something Bezos characterized in media reports as just the beginning of the Earth Fund’s work. In addition, Bezos also made gifts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, giving $100 million to Feeding America and another $50 million to pandemic relief efforts in the state of Washington. His total giving for 2020 was reported at $10.2 billion.

Philanthropic largess has always been a hallmark of those titans of industry for any given generation. Bezos’ wealth, for example, as well as 16 others on the 2020 list, made their wealth in technology – the industry of the early 21st century.

Joining Bezos is Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter and on-line payment platform Square, who was number five on the list, gifting nearly $1.1 billion through donor-advised funds with much of it focused on various pandemic relief efforts.

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, and his wife, Wendy, turned up at the number seven spot on the list, with reported gifts approaching $470 million, including supporting pandemic relief efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and ongoing support for the sustainable seafood program of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium (an institution founded in 1984 with a $55 million gift from philanthropists David and Lucile Packard). The Schmidts fell from the number three spot in 2019.

Right behind the Schmidts at number eight is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, with reported 2020 gifts of $441 million. The Omidyars have been on the list every year except two since 2002 and are standouts for their investments in fighting extremism in politics and threats to democracy and its pillars, such as free and fair elections and a free and independent press.

As an example, check out the Democracy Fund (democracyfund.org), an independent foundation established by Omidyar that has now committed more than $150 million to support healthy democracy.

Other well-known names in the tech sector also make the 2020 list. Bill and Melinda Gates continue to utilize the power and uber gravitas of their foundation with $157 million in gifts, supporting vaccine research and advanced testing efforts for COVID-19.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg found herself on the list for a fifth year in a row – in 2020 at spot fifteen – with nearly $123 in giving for long-held passions for gender equality issues and in providing significant support for COVID-19 relief efforts, including for food security in California’s Bay Area where economic inequality in the face of the pandemic was – and remains – particularly stark.

No review of philanthropy from the tech front would be complete without Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan, who continue to put their own foundation to work, as well as a donor advised fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, in evenly distributing $120 million in gifts for 2020 and landing them in the 16th spot.

Finally, new to the list this year is Airbnb’s co-founder, Joseph Gebbia Jr., who, after the initial public stock offering of the company’s shares saw his own personal wealth reach into the stratosphere, donate $27 million to efforts to combat homelessness in San Francisco and address the coronavirus pandemic. Gebbia clinched the number 47th spot in 2020.

While technology wealth fueled extraordinary philanthropy in 2020, underlying trends of giving were also observed in the report. For example, landing in second place on the list is MacKenzie Scott, whose ex-husband Jeff Bezos topped the list. We have previously reported in this column on Scott’s giving which has been both expedient and purposeful – a rarity in philanthropy and especially so when we are speaking about nearly $6 billion.

With a purported net worth in the neighborhood of $55 billion, Scott’s giving, more than any other philanthropist in 2020, represents a humble “leaning in”, to borrow Sheryl Sandberg’s phrase, to the racial justice imperative of our time. Working with a team to make strategic decisions, Scott funded 512 nonprofits whose expertise, lived experiences, and on-the-ground know how would guide the eventual deployment of resources.

This trend of devolution of authority to funding what works best has been a long-time coming in philanthropy and the issues of racial justice and income inequality have set the stage for a new era of philanthropy whose power, I believe, we have only just begun to see.

Critical to this turn has been the COVID-19 pandemic, where America’s wealthiest have seen their own incomes boom at the same time that the nation as a whole has seen the largest economic decline since the Great Depression, almost a century ago. The pandemic created a rallying cry for neighbor to support neighbor, in gifts and acts of goodness, both large and small, for even the most basic of human needs. Food and housing insecurity became real issues for Americans in numbers that again, are reminiscent of the Great Depression and have not been witnessed in modern times.

Indeed, the chasm that has emerged in the realities of the pandemic creates opportunities for not just reflection, but also for action and toward creating a stronger nation.

And for you, the reader, may you find time to reflect. And act. And give.