Many Top Philanthropists Choose to Give Close to Home

Many of the country's top philanthropists support institutions close to home and choose to stay involved with those institutions to make sure their gifts are used effectively, BusinessWeek reports.

According to the magazine's annual ranking of the 50 Most Generous Philanthropists, sixteen of the top fifty U.S. philanthropists gave more than $100 million to charitable causes this year, while nine — including one individual who donated $723 million — exceeded $200 million in giving. And though many of the people on the list, including Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael and Susan Dell, and George Soros, continued to make large international gifts in support of global health, development, and democracy initiatives, most of the nine-figure gifts in 2007 were made to institutions located close to the respective donors' homes and/or tied to their personal experiences.

Jon Huntsman, Sr., who donated more than $700 million to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah, has said that three-quarters of his lifetime giving will be focused in Utah, where he lives and where his son is governor. His choice to support cancer research is also personal; the disease claimed the lives of his mother, stepmother, and father, and Huntsman himself has battled the disease on three separate occasions. A newcomer to the list, David Koch, is also fighting cancer, which influenced his $100 million pledge to support construction of a cancer research center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For Business Wire founder Lorry Lokey, on the other hand, the decision to contribute to libraries across Oregon is tied to his memories of a local librarian, Mary Hancock Bell, who sparked his passion for reading when he was young.

While sentiment often spurs a philanthropist's decision to fund a charitable cause or program, donors are increasingly businesslike in how they give and the actions they take to shape the impact of their giving, says BusinessWeek. For example, Robert Day, CEO of Trust Company of the West, spent months hashing out the details of a $200 million gift to fund scholarships for juniors and seniors at his alma mater, Claremont McKenna College. Day, who places little value in MBA degrees, has directed that his gift pay for leadership training to prepare students to lead the ever-more-complex organizations of the twenty-first century.

And while focusing on how much "success" costs can make it easier for an institutional or individual donor to assess the impact of a gift, many donors are content to evaluate impact somewhat less formally. For instance, Sandy and Joan Weill, who have donated more than $300 million to Cornell University and its Weill Medical College, believe that direct feedback is enough. "As in business, we constantly evaluate the return on our investment when it comes to giving," said the former chairman and CEO of Citigroup. By working closely with groups he and his wife support, he added, "we are able to see firsthand the impact being made."

"The Greatest Givers." BusinessWeek 11/26/2007.