The Big Idea: Fast Times
Our culture puts a great deal of focus on wealth-building, whether in tech, pro sports or celebritydom. But billionaire MacKenzie Scott can’t seem to give away her money fast enough. Her extraordinary largesse and whiplash-inducing pace this past year appear to have given some of her peers a gentle kick in the pants.
In March, Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, announced she had bestowed $3.9 billion upon 465 nonprofits in the previous nine months, bringing her tally of donations to at least $12 billion in just the past two years. Her modus operandi also involves relying on experts to identify organizations that can actually make an impact and then letting those nonprofits run with the money. No strings attached nor provisions for how to spend it.
Hers is a speed and style the philanthropic world is not accustomed to seeing, as traditional means of giving—donating buildings, endowing foundations, leaving money in a will for children to form the legacy—move at a slower pace. Her actions have turbocharged the field, pressuring others to keep up.
The pandemic has granted great fortunes to many. In 2021 the 10 wealthiest individuals on the planet (already worth close to, if not more than, $100 billion each) added a whopping $402 billion to their combined fortunes. The most affluent 0.01 percent now hold 11 percent of the world’s assets; that’s up a full percentage point from the previous year, which was also record-breaking. Some members of this exclusive club are sending rockets into space and buying media platforms. Others are calmly and quietly getting on with the act of dispersing their fortunes to those who need it most.
At the end of 2021, Melinda French Gates reportedly decided she would no longer commit a majority of her wealth to the Gates Foundation, opting instead to put money directly into the hands of people and organizations “and let them define success on their own terms.”
Major philanthropists are also waking up to the urgency of climate change and directing significant funds toward the environment and the communities most affected by its rapid degradation. In September nine foundations, in an effort known as 30×30, vowed to spend $5 billion by 2030 to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and sea. Laurene Powell Jobs separately—and single-handedly—pledged $3.5 billion to climate-related initiatives.
Meanwhile, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates’s Giving Pledge is still going strong. In December it announced that 14 additional billionaires, including the CEOs of DoorDash and Pinterest, promised to donate more than half their fortunes during their lifetimes. That brings the total to 231 signatories from 28 countries.
There are signs more reticent moguls might be feeling the heat. In 2021 Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest individual, flirted with and then apparently snubbed the UN’s World Food Programme. He later gifted $5.7 billion to an unnamed charity, finally securing a spot on Philanthropy 50, an annual list of America’s top donors. This was the year to go big.
Climate: Laurene Powell Jobs
Last September, as the world’s leaders convened at both the United Nations General Assembly and the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in an urgent effort to save the planet, philanthropists and foundations also got in line. One after another, they pledged vast sums to climate-change initiatives, vowing to do something for this dire crusade.
Amid all the excitement, one gift stood out: Philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, announced she was gearing up to channel $3.5 billion into the cause over the next 10 years.
Powell Jobs was characteristically short on details, but the goal is to help underserved communities most impacted by climate change, and much of the contribution will focus on housing, transportation, food security and health. Her level of commitment is sorely needed—and hopefully will spur others to fund planet-saving efforts.
The Arts: Oscar Tang & Agnes Hsu-Tang
The Metropolitan Museum of Art had hoped to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020 with a splashy new wing dedicated to modern and contemporary art. But lacking the necessary funds, it could only complete a different project replacing the aging skylights above the European-paintings galleries. The pandemic, which closed the museum to visitors for almost six months, only worsened the financial distress; the Met even considered selling artworks to pay the bills.
But that bleak outlook appears to be brightening. In November the museum announced the largest capital gift in its history: $125 million from financier Oscar Tang and his wife, Agnes Hsu-Tang, to finally realize the new wing, which will house Leonard Lauder’s acclaimed Cubism collection, among other treasures. The couple have already proved themselves friends of the arts. Tang, a Met board member since 1994 (and the first of Asian descent), recently bestowed $30 million upon the museum to purchase rare Chinese artworks, and Hsu-Tang is an art historian and archaeologist at Columbia University.
Urban Revitalization: Anonymous
Kalamazoo is a city in southern Michigan with a population of about 75,000 people. In July local officials stood on the steps of City Hall and giddily announced that a $400 million gift had been made anonymously to help pay off the municipality’s debt, rebuild infrastructure and reduce poverty.
It was the biggest monetary contribution ever made to an American city and hailed as a civic-minded act of generosity. It’s also part of a growing trend of private donations standing in for tax dollars. Appealing as that model may sound—the most affluent among us stepping up and easing the burden on the middle and working classes—it’s not without controversy, as donors across the board have been known to have an opinion or two about how their money is spent. Still, it’s hard to argue with philanthropy that can impact every single resident of an entire city.
Medical Research: Clara Wu Tsai
Clara Wu Tsai knows a thing or two about elite athletes: After all, she’s the co-owner, with her husband, Joe Tsai, of the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Liberty and the San Diego Seals. So when she announced a $220 million donation to study humans at their physical apex, the research initiative made perfect sense.
“Almost all of what we know about health comes from the study of disease,” explains the website for the new undertaking, named the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance. “We are studying peak performance, with the goal of enabling all people to achieve optimal health and well-being.” In other words, by studying uber-healthy subjects, scientists can see what they have in common and how ordinary folks might achieve similar results.
Wu Tsai, who has donated generously to neuroscience research as well as to social-justice initiatives, has brought together six institutions for the endeavor (Stanford University, her undergraduate alma mater, will lead) and vows the project will include athletes of all ages, disciplines, genders and ethnicities. Whether she’ll recruit any of her own exceptional talent—looking at you, Kevin Durant and Sabrina Ionescu—remains to be seen.
Humanitarian: Enrique Piñeyro
On March 12, Enrique Piñeyro landed his foundation’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Warsaw, Poland, welcoming aboard hundreds of Ukrainian senior citizens, mothers and children on what he understood would be another step in their already harrowing journey. Since then, the Argentinean filmmaker and former commercial airline pilot has ferried thousands of war refugees out of Poland to safer havens in Spain and Italy on weekly flights.
Piñeyro quit his first career in commercial aviation out of industry safety concerns. His debut movie, Whiskey Romeo Zulu, was a 2004 drama based on his whistleblower days and the 1999 crash of an airliner in downtown Buenos Aires. That accident spawned his 2006 documentary Air Force, Incorporated, which prompted the Argentinean government to revise its civil air-traffic system.
Piñeyro has also flown humanitarian airlifts for his foundation, Solidaire, into and out of conflict-ridden parts of Africa, donated a ship to rescue Syrian refugees who had tried to cross the Mediterranean in unsafe boats and transported Argentinean children battling rare forms of cancer to Spain for treatment. His is an example worth honoring.
Above: Enrique Piñeyro (right) with Ukrainian refugees
One to Watch: Austin Russell
Austin Russell knows the power of a big-dollar gift. He built his company, Luminar Technologies, which makes sensors for self-driving cars, after a $100,000 grant from tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel enabled him to drop out of Stanford University in order to focus on the engineering innovation. Luminar is now a publicly traded company, and, at age 27, Russell is the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. And he’s already demonstrating his determination to pay the good deed forward.
In December, Russell announced a $70 million gift to the Orlando-based Central Florida Foundation, which addresses local issues from poverty to affordable housing. He’s funneling money into the city not only because it’s where his company is based but also because Orlando needs the help. “It’s been underinvested in proportion to larger metro areas—the New Yorks, San Franciscos and LAs of this world,” he told The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
By donating in a substantial and concentrated fashion, he hopes to make significant strides in solving complex problems such as addiction and homelessness. If his (albeit short) track record is any indication, Russell’s big- picture approach bodes well for his potential philanthropic impact: When he was 17, he said he wanted to eliminate automobile accidents. Just a few years later, he perfected his Luminar sensors.