There is something about twinkling lights, garlands, and gifts that causes a change in people—not the same change as good eggnog with double the rum, but it's not far off. At Christmas time, people are merrier and more generous than usual. The Red Cross and UNICEF see more donations in December than in any other month. People who usually sprint toward the office with their collars up and their eyes straight ahead may be more likely to drop change into an outstretched hand or donation pot. Strangers exchange greetings instead of suspicious glares—this is the holiday spirit.
This Christmas season, we will look at some people whose Christmas spirit doesn't leave when the pine needles drop. They may not be in the same league as ole Saint Nick, but they aren't far off.
- There's long been a tradition for successful business tycoons to turn a philanthropic eye toward holiday giving.
- In the 19th century, the captains of industry like Rockefeller and Carnegie were noteworthy for their charitable giving.
- More recently billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have continued the tradition of philanthropy to make the world a better place.
The Old Guard
Philanthropy on Wall Street is not a recent event. The original saints of Wall Street can still be felt by tracing your finger down a list of libraries, hospitals, foundations, research centers, women's shelters, and other projects aimed at helping the less fortunate. If you do this, you'll find that some names occur more often than others.
Steel, Oil, and Cars
The old guard, consisting of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, and Henry Ford, all made their fortunes in oil, steel, or a combination of the two—in cars, ships, etc. Charity came to these men late in life, and it is sometimes said that much of their philanthropy was giving back the money they made from crushing unions and creating unfair monopolies.
While there is truth to these claims, it is also true that most of what we call unsavory business practices in hindsight were commonplace in their time and certainly have similar precedents today. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Mellon, and Ford's devotion to education, medical care, and the fight against poverty made them stand out at a time when the world's richest people hoarded their money within their families. These men, and the foundations they left behind have given billions of dollars to improve life in America.
The Next Generation
Whereas the philanthropists of the past were based in heavy industry, the next generation largely consists of tech street barons and stock gurus. Here are a few members of the new generation of philanthropists:
Bill and Melinda Gates
Bill and Melinda Gates lead the list of next-generation philanthropists. The third richest man in America and his ex-wife have left Microsoft behind to focus on dispersing their fortune. Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they are transferring their wealth into projects that include medical care and education in developing countries, as well as a number of domestic charities. The foundation, with its $49.9 billion endowment as of 2021, is the largest domestic charity, and second-largest internationally.
Bill and Melinda Gates have gone after the most common and pervasive problems in the world. They believe that while AIDS and cancer kill large portions of the developed world's population, far more deaths result from preventable illnesses like acute diarrhea and tuberculosis, of which children are often the victims. The Gates Foundation's grants for vaccine research provide an incentive to fix these common problems.
The Oracle of Omaha pledged 85% of his stock in Berkshire Hathaway, which was worth a total of $37.4 billion at the time of his commitment in 2006 to charity, most of it to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The shares are being given over an extended time period, with Berkshire's price on the date of each gift determining the exact dollar value.
Warren Buffett also pledged to give away 99% of his total personal wealth and makes significant donations to a variety of charities in addition to the Gates Foundation, including those run by his children and a foundation started by his late wife Susan. His total donations in recent years, the bulk of which goes to the Gates Foundation on an annual basis, including $3.4 billion worth of Berkshire Hathaway stock in 2018 and $3.6 billion worth in 2019.
Gates and Buffett also teamed up to create the Giving Pledge, a charitable endeavor that encourages billionaires to give away the majority of their wealth. The effort has attracted more than 200 donors, including one of the tech industry’s latest multi-billionaires, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Gordon and Betty Moore
Gordon Moore was one of the co-founders of Intel Corporation. He started the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in 2001 with a donation of his Intel stock worth an estimated $5 billion at the time. With his wife Betty, he has made donations in the hundreds of millions of dollars to three main causes: science, environmental conservation (with a focus on marine life), and medicine.
The Moores have funded training programs for nurses in the hope of preventing common medical mistakes. They also have given generously to improving secondary education. The foundation has made significant pledges to support physics research and is the primary source of financial support behind constructing the world’s largest telescope, which is scheduled for completion later this decade.
Michael and Susan Dell
Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers, and his wife Susan have been increasing their involvement in philanthropy every year since Michael stepped down as CEO in July 2004, leaving behind a profitable company through which he amassed a large personal fortune. Having four children of their own, the Dells have used their wealth to advance children's causes (health, education, and medicine). The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation was established in 1999 and has issued grants of over $1.5 billion.
George Soros made his money in the financial markets. His philanthropy began in the 1970s when he helped students attend the university in apartheid South Africa. Since then, Soros has continued to follow his dream of an open society. His foundation, called the Open Society Foundations, gives away approximately $500 million per year to support liberal causes across the globe.
Though his views are sometimes considered controversial, such as his opposition to the war on drugs, Soros has had a significant impact on international affairs. He was part of the puzzle that helped the "Rose Revolution" overturn a corrupt government in Georgia as well as having some influence on the "Orange Revolution" that toppled the Soviet-friendly Ukrainian government in 2004 (although recidivism remains a problem in both cases).
His involvement in these causes is related to his own experiences with repressive regimes. He lived through the Nazi invasion of Hungary only to see his country "freed" by the Soviets, whereupon he fled at age 15. Soros has donated more than $18 billion to charities around the world.
The Bottom Line
Charity is a personal thing. Some people give to a particular cause because of past experiences. Others give to general causes in the hope of improving the world from the bottom up. While the people we've detailed here are notable for the size of their donations, most of their money was given away through charitable foundations.
Although their donations dwarf what the average person can afford to give, the collective donations of individuals are consistently cited by charitable organizations as accounting for the bulk of all charitable giving. So even if you can’t top the mega-donations provided by some of the wealthiest charitable benefactors, those few dollars you pass on to charity really count. With that in mind, celebrate the season of giving by sharing a little bit of your prosperity with the people, animals, and causes that really need your support.