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2021: The year of giving

Maria Di Mento

AP – It was a healthy year for big gifts to charitable causes in 2021, a year that saw one of the largest multibillion-dollar contributions in more than a decade, according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy tally.

The power philanthropists Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates announced in May that they were divorcing and then gave a jaw-dropping USD15 billion to their foundation in July. The money will bolster its endowment and support the grant maker’s work in global health, development, policy and advocacy, and United States (US) education well into the future.

The gift increased the grant maker’s endowment to about USD65 billion and is the Gates’ biggest infusion of money into the foundation since 2000, when they transferred Microsoft stock then valued at USD20 million.

When they announced this year’s gift, the two philanthropists indicated they planned to continue running the foundation together for the time being but announced through the foundation that if after two years either one of them decides not to work together, then French Gates will resign as co-chair and trustee.

Regardless, the philanthropists made clear in two new Giving Pledge letters that they both intend to keep giving big in the years ahead.

Bill and Melinda Gates smile at each other during an interview in Kirkland, Washington on February 1, 2019. PHOTO: AP

French Gates wrote that she will continue to support efforts to fight poverty and “advance equality for women and girls and other marginalized groups”. Gates wrote in his Giving Pledge letter that the work of the foundation will continue to be his “top philanthropic priority” and that he plans to increase his giving in other areas like “mitigating climate change and tackling Alzheimer’s”.

Nonprofits that focus on those causes are likely to reap big rewards, given that Bill Gates’s net worth is pegged at about USD137 billion and Melinda French Gates’s at USD6 billion.

Meanwhile, Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny’s, USD500 million contribution to the University of Oregon tied for second place on the list. The gift will be used to expand the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and follows a USD500 million donation the Knights gave to launch the science campus in 2016. The Knight Campus aims to speed up the process of transforming new scientific discoveries into medical treatments and other developments to improve people’s lives.

Phil Knight, whose net worth stands at about USD60 billion, earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the university in 1959. The couple have given the university a total of at least USD1.6 billion to date.

Also tied for number two is a USD500 million challenge pledge the financier George Soros made through his Open Society Foundations to Bard College for its endowment. The pledge aims to persuade other donors to back the college’s effort to raise USD1 billion over the next five years.

College officials announced in April that the pledge had already helped them raise USD250 million from other donors. Soros, whose net worth is pegged at USD8.6 billion, founded Soros Fund Management, a New York firm that manages hedge funds.

Next on the list is a USD480 million donation to Northwestern University from Patrick Ryan, founder of Ryan Specialty Group, an insurance services company, and his wife, Shirley. The Ryans, whose net worth stands at close to USD8 billion, gave the money to their alma mater for a variety of programmes.

The money will back education and research efforts in applied microeconomics, business, digital medicine, global health, neuroscience, and translational research programmes at the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine. A portion of the gift will also pay for building projects.

The Chronicle’s annual top 10 list of the largest gifts announced by individuals or their foundations totaled more than USD18.1 billion in 2021. (The 2021 list actually includes 11 donations because of ties.) The contributions on the 2021 list went primarily to well-established institutions. Eight of the 11 gifts are from billionaires whose cumulative wealth totals USD426.3 billion.

The Chronicle’s annual rankings are based on the 10 biggest publicly announced gifts. The tally does not include contributions of artwork or gifts from anonymous donors. In February, the Chronicle will unveil its annual ranking of the 50 biggest donors, a list based on individuals’ total contributions in 2021 rather than single gifts.