Total giving in 2017 by individuals and couples on the Chronicle's Philanthropy 50 list was up significantly from the $5.6 billion given by the top 50 in 2016 and is the third biggest one-year total in the survey's history. In contrast to past years, when multiple bequests or a single donor often drove up the total, the increase in 2017 was fueled by large gifts from relatively young philanthropists who are still amassing wealth and likely to continue giving large amounts, the Chronicle notes.
At the top of the 2017 Philanthropy 50 rankings were three billionaire tech couples: Bill and Melinda Gates, whose $4.78 billion ranked them first for the fourth time in the eighteen years the list has been compiled; Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, who committed more than $2 billion to their charitable foundation and donor-advised fund; and Michael and Susan Dell, who gave $1 billion. Rounding out the top ten were Henry Hillman, whose $850 million bequest to the Hillman Family Foundations will support Pittsburgh-area nonprofits; Michael R. Bloomberg ($702 million); Florence Irving ($680 million); Charles Butt ($290 million); John and Laura Arnold ($285 million), Pierre and Pam Omidyar ($257.5 million); and Roy and Diana Vagelos ($250 million).
Eleven individuals and couples on the list made their fortunes in the tech industry, collectively accounting for $8.7 billion, or 60 percent, of the total given. The influence of the tech billionaires on the list is magnified, said Rob Reich, co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, when one takes into account the fact that many of them also invest in social change initiatives through limited-liability corporations and for-profit ventures. At the same time, nearly two-thirds of the dollars given by Philanthropy 50 donors were directed to foundations or donor-advised funds, which will have many in philanthropy watching closely to see where — and how fast — that money is spent. Philanthropy is a source of power, Reich told the Chronicle, "[a]nd power deserves scrutiny...."
According to the Chronicle, the surge in giving by wealthy donors was fueled by a strengthening economy and buoyant stock market, even as average Americans were cutting back on their giving. The decline in giving by individuals since the Great Recession has raised concerns that widening economic inequality has spread to the charitable sector, with nonprofits increasingly having to rely on major gifts and high-net-worth donors. While some philanthropists on the list made specific commitments designed to address inequality, Chuck Collins, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, noted that the significant share of Philanthropy 50 gifts going to foundations could represent "an enormous warehousing of wealth for a century or more."