The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Top 50 List Gives Misleading Picture of 2021 Trends

On February 8, The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its annual “The Philanthropy 50” list, which ranked 2021’s top donors, whose gifts totaled $45 million to $15 billion. To be included, donors were required to disclose the amount of their gifts and the recipients of their generosity. Since she was unwilling to provide that information, MacKenzie Scott does not appear among the top 50.

Accompanying the list was an article titled “Our Annual Philanthropy 50: Top Donors Returned to Pre-Pandemic Causes,” in which the authors claimed, “The list is a disappointment for charity advocates who had hoped that the broader giving in 2020 – which featured large gifts to food banks, racial-justice groups, historically Black colleges and universities and human-service organizations – marked a turning point in giving by the ultrawealthy.” Of the nearly $28 billion given or pledged, that article noted, nearly 86% went to foundations, donor-advised funds, higher education and hospitals.  Yet while the report attempted to paint a broad picture of giving in 2021, it ignored the specific causes that were aided by many of the year’s biggest gifts, excluded other gifts of significance and made generalizations about giving trends that may not be accurate. Moreover, the article’s authors pointed to critics who “say the uber-wealthy seem out of touch with front-burner issues,” but failed to recognize that a return to mission often is an integral part of honoring donor intent

There was some attention paid to higher education gifts that addressed “author-approved” issues: a $101 million gift to a university to expand rural nursing education and a $150 million gift to a university to promote more diversity in STEM areas, for example. But a careful look at the top 50 revealed other gifts that belied the notion that “eds and meds” is all you need to describe ultrawealthy giving.   

First impressions certainly change when you encounter Doris Kelley Christopher, who founded the Pampered Chef, a company that offers kitchen tools, in 1980 and sold it to Berkshire Hathaway in 2002. Christopher was rated 50th on the list at the time of publication, with $45 million in giving in 2021. Her top cause is listed as “Higher Education” and her biggest gift last year went to her alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The ultimate beneficiaries of her generosity, however, are neither the faculty nor the students at that university but rather the residents of all of Illinois’s 102 counties. Her support for the Doris Kelley Christopher Illinois Extension Center will help coordinate the land-grant university’s research and programming in five areas: energy and environment; food safety and security; workforce development; family wellness and financial security and youth development.  

The profile of K. Lisa Yang, ranked #32 with $82 million of giving in 2021, lists her top cause as “Science,” but also notes she “devotes much of her time advocating for individuals with disabilities and autism-spectrum disorders and directs her wealth toward efforts to help people who are physically or cognitively disabled.” Those priorities are reflected in her $51.7 million in gifts to MIT to help restore the functions of those affected by spinal-cord injuries, stroke, musculoskeletal disorders and other conditions; to better understand brain function and mental health and to support a post-baccalaureate program for low-income and underrepresented students studying brain and cognitive sciences. 

Although a number of donors in “The Philanthropy 50” directed their 2021 gifts to their foundations or donor-advised funds, the gifts they made last year from those vehicles reflected concerns that also went beyond “eds and meds.” Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, who were fifth on the list, added a total of $1.05 billion to their private foundation and donor-advised fund. Among the donations they made in 2021 were $350 million to Just Trust, a criminal-justice nonprofit, and $50 million to the Advanced Education Research and Development Fund to support research and development efforts to improve education for Black, Latino and low-income students. 

And while Bill and Melinda French Gates, ranked as 2021’s top givers, directed an additional $15 billion to the Gates Foundation in 2021, its CEO, Mark Suzman, reported grants made last year, “boosted by the additional commitments for COVID response,” totaled $6.7 billion. He added in a follow-up interview that the foundation – which plans to sunset after its co-founders’ deaths – will sustain that higher level of giving in the future.  

There is also plenty of evidence that the “broader giving of 2020” continues, as a series of articles indicates nonprofit organizations serving disadvantaged populations are recovering from the challenges they experienced in the past two years. On February 8, the same day “The Philanthropy 50” was published, The Chronicle of Philanthropy featured another article with the headline “Nonprofits That Serve Low- and Moderate-Income People Show Fewer Signs of Covid Disruption.” With regard to financial support, the article noted, “Foundation funding was a strong point for nonprofits, with 63 reporting no change or increased grant making and 32 percent reporting decreases. Government funding was another bright spot, with 77 percent reporting steady or increased revenue and 19 percent reporting decreases.” 

A week later, on February 16, Chronicle of Philanthropy readers learned that, “Giving to community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities soared last year, thanks largely to big gifts from MacKenzie Scott and Michael Bloomberg.” If Scott had been included on the top 50 list, she would have ranked second. Bloomberg, already featured on the list, was third. And on February 17, the outlet summarized a Blackbaud Institute report which indicated that overall giving to U.S. charitable organizations in 2021 had increased by 8.9% over 2020 giving. Moreover, the data revealed the increase was not limited to high-budget nonprofits: 

Fundraising by large organizations, with total annual fundraising of more than $10 million, was up 9.0%. Medium-sized organizations, with total annual fundraising between $1 million and $10 million, had an increase of 8.5% on a year-over-year basis. Small nonprofits, with total annual fundraising less than $1 million, experienced a 9.2% increase in fundraising results compared to 2020.

The Chronicle’s focus on the top 50 givers in the U.S. each year may provide some fodder for those who criticize big philanthropy, those who argue that revenue derived from higher taxes would be superior to voluntary giving, and those who simply dislike the philanthropic choices made by some of our most generous donors. But “The Philanthropy 50,” which looks outside the context of all charitable giving in 2021, leaves a skewed impression of giving trends overall. It also ignores the context in which each of those top 50 donors made their decisions. 

For a great many donors, 2020 was a year in which health, social and economic crises propelled an expansion of giving, both in dollars and in the addition of issues and organizations outside their defined missions. Some donors of all sizes appear to be continuing these practices. For others, however, a return to mission is an essential part of honoring donor intent or fulfilling long-range strategies that tackle complex problems like addiction, environmental threats, homelessness, poverty and others. Some donors – those who focus on K-12 education or mental health, for example – now find themselves facing additional challenges brought on by the pandemic and the lockdowns that followed. Mission integrity provides the focus and clarity essential to achieving impact, and should be applauded, not denounced. 

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