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The country’s biggest philanthropists are ‘completely disconnected’ from pandemic reality, report says

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Story at a glance

  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its Philanthropy 50 list of America’s top donors in 2021.
  • Nearly 86 percent of donations went to colleges and universities, hospitals, foundations and donor-advised funds.
  • Giving to racial justice and racial equity organizations was down compared to 2020 levels and other “front burner” issues like misinformation and political division.

A new ranking of America’s biggest donors indicates that where philanthropists made their donations didn’t change all that much, which has some experts saying there are other important national issues being ignored. 

The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its Philanthropy 50, a national ranking of 2021’s biggest donors and which lucky charities and causes received their donations. The group says that in 2021, more than $27.7 billion was donated by Americans, with most of the money going to and from philanthropists’ own foundations and donor-advised funds. 

Nearly 86 percent of all funds contributed by donors on 2021’s top 50 list went to a “relatively narrow” slice of charities, such as colleges and universities, hospitals, foundations and donor-advised funds, according to an analysis by the Chronicle. 

“From this list, you would not know that we’re living through a global pandemic, and you would not know that as a society we’re grappling with racial inequity. This gift list is completely disconnected from the reality of our society right now,” said Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, to the Chronicle. 

For example, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, landing in the No. 1 spot on this year’s list, pledged $15 billion to their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a big player in global health and American education.  


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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan also gave $1.05 billion between their Chan Zuckerberg Foundation and another donor-advised fund. The couple came in fourth on 2021’s Philanthropy 50 list. 

“It’s hard to look at that list and think of 2021 as a watershed or transformative year. This just underscores the fact that ‘eds and meds’ continue to dominate,” said Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, in a statement. 

Former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, ranked ninth on the Chronicle’s Philanthropy 50 list, also made his biggest gifts in the education sector, donating to the Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum, the Barack Obama Foundation and the DC Public Library Foundation, among other groups. 

The Chronicle says its rankings are based on the total amount of philanthropists that gave or pledged money in 2021, with research conducted with donors, their beneficiaries and public records. 

However, there were some exceptions, as the Chronicle noted that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s top cause was social justice, donating through his Jack Dorsey Donor Advised Fund. The fund issued grants of about $68.6 million that went to pandemic relief and social justice efforts. He also donated roughly $18.3 million to girls’ health and education programs in addition to $11.2 million to universal basic income groups. 

Another high-profile philanthropist is MacKenzie Scott, who’s been known to make large racial justice donations. She’s not featured in 2021’s list as the Chronicle noted neither she nor her representatives would confirm how those gifts were made.  

However, just recently education nonprofit Communities in Schools announced it had received $133.5 million. The group operates in 3,000 schools in 19 states and intends to use Scott’s donation to bring its work to each of the 70,000 U.S. schools eligible for Title I funds, allocated by the federal government to aid schools with “high enrollment numbers of children from low-income families.” 

Overall, giving to racial justice and racial equity organizations was down compared to 2020 levels, and other “front burner” issues were also excluded, as Michael Moody, a philanthropy professor at Grand Valley State University, explained to the Chronicle.  

“Many people if asked, ‘What is our greatest social problem?’ would point to political division and the spread of misinformation. I’m not sure I see anything on the list that addresses that,” said Moody. 

However, it could be that many ultrawealthy donors are often far removed from communities of color, making any donations toward racial equity less impactful, as Lori Villarosa, executive director of Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, explained to the Chronicle. 

“White billionaires get these ideas about what they think is the right solution, and then they set up initiatives that they think will work, so then they’re spending other people’s money, too. That’s one of the big problems that we want to see changed,” said Villarosa. 

Changing America has reached out to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan and Jeff Bezos for comment.


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