Are Mega-Donors Finally Broadening Their Horizons?

Black Lives Matter Protesters

By Julie Price

February 12, 2021

We’re seeing some signs that more of America’s top donors are ready to go beyond putting their names on buildings at already well-endowed universities and hospitals.

 The Chronicle of Philanthropy just released its Philanthropy 50 ranking of the Americans who gave the most in 2020. In a year of profound upheaval, more billionaires decided to put their dollars towards racial justice work and addressing basic human needs like homelessness and hunger. And with more of these mega-donors giving to small- and medium-sized organizations, many of these gifts were profoundly transformational for the nonprofits on the receiving end.

Here are a few key highlights of the Chronicle’s findings:

  • In 2020, ultrawealthy donors gave more large gifts to small and medium-size nonprofits than ever before, especially in the areas of social services, racial justice, and hunger.
  • “Despite that shift, colleges and universities continue to receive many large donations. They got $2.2 billion from Philanthropy 50 donors, more than any other category, aside from foundations and donor-advised funds.
  • “Several donors, including MacKenzie Scott and Jack Dorsey, gave groups unrestricted funds quickly with a simple application process — or no application process at all.
  • “The downside of simplified applications and reporting requirements is that it’s hard for charities to build relationships with donors that could lead to future gifts. Experts recommend focusing on fundraising basics and the quality of their programs and if they get a windfall, credit the charity’s operating results, not fundraisers.”

One thing that tempers the good news about donors diversifying their giving commitments is the lack of transparency surrounding some of these gifts. For example, there are almost no details available yet about the structure or strategy of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s new Bezos Earth Fund, to which he has pledged a staggering $10 billion. Is it a foundation? A donor-advised fund? An LLC? Who is advising him on his philanthropic investments—most of which have been to wealthy “big green” environmental organizations rather than grassroots environmental justice groups? Very few details have emerged so far.

Still, let’s take a moment to celebrate the fact that more of America’s billionaires are opening their eyes to the power and impact their dollars can have on underfunded areas of our nonprofit sector. Our country will be better off if our country’s top donors continue to increase the media attention and resources available fights against causes such as food insecurity, homelessness, and racial inequity.

-By Julie Price

Photo credit: David Geitgey Sierralupe Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-2.0) license

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