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Gargantuan is the only way to describe it. The past year was one of superlatives in the giving world, capped by the announcement of a planned $31 billion transfer of wealth from the world's second-richest man, Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK) Warren Buffett, to the foundation of the world's richest man, Buffett friend and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates. The news electrified the philanthropic world, sparking talk of a new golden age of giving. The buzz continued at the year's most-talked-about philanthropic event, the Clinton Global Initiative. In three days, the organization raised 215 commitments, valued at $7.3 billion, to tackle issues such as poverty and global warming.
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The big names and even bigger money are accompanied by suitably ambitious goals. To list just a few: finding vaccines for malaria and HIV/AIDs, breaking the cycle of poverty, and stopping nuclear proliferation. Tech luminaries such as Gates, eBay Inc. (EBAY) founder Pierre Omidyar, Dell Inc. (DELL) Chairman Michael Dell, and former eBay President Jeff Skoll, among other high-profile givers, are intent on bringing about massive social change within their lifetimes. In an e-mail, former President Bill Clinton, whose initiative attracts a broad swath of public and private players, notes that "when people come together and work for change, when they collaborate in innovative ways, their collective impact can be extraordinary."
Joining Gates and Buffett at the top of BusinessWeek's annual list of 50 Most Generous Philanthropists are two new names, former Golden West Financial Corp. (GDW) co-CEOs Herbert and Marion Sandler, and businessman Bernard Osher, Marion's brother and an early backer of Golden West. The Sandlers built the Oakland (Calif.)-based company into the nation's second-largest savings and loan before merging it with Wachovia Corp. (WB) in a $24 billion deal announced in May. In June, the Sandlers reported donations of Golden West stock worth some $1.3 billion to unidentified charities; Osher's given some $723 million to charity so far this year.
Such mammoth gifts made it harder to get on BusinessWeek's list. The bar jumped to $157 million in giving over the past five years, up from $120 million last year. "The scale and pace [of giving] has changed," notes Sara Engelhardt, president of the Foundation Center. The universe of givers is changing, too. "The new philanthropy includes different kinds of individuals--not just the old industrialists, but people in theater and politics, business and the young--all getting on board."
Eleven new names made it on board BusinessWeek's ranking, with more money coming from fortunes made in the hedge fund and energy world. Giving to global causes was up, and big money went to promote research for disorders and diseases where donors have a personal connection. Renaissance Technologies Corp. hedge fund mogul James H. Simons and his wife, Marilyn Hawrys Simons, for instance, have been big supporters of research into autism; their daughter Audrey has a mild form of it. They plan to devote $100 million to investigating the disorder over t`he next five years. Simons, a former chair of the mathematics department at Stony Brook University in New York, also supports math and science education.
Dan L. Duncan, chairman of energy services company Enterprise Products Partners and a cancer survivor, donates much of his money to research the disease. Duncan, who lost three family members to cancer, gave $100 million to Houston-based Baylor College of Medicine in early 2006 to fund a new cancer center.
Supporting one's alma mater fueled a lot of mega-giving. Oklahoma State University, for one, is benefiting from a decision made in the late 1940s to give a young T. Boone Pickens a basketball scholarship after Texas A&M University cut him from the team. Pickens, who heads up $4 billion hedge fund BP Capital Management, made a $165 million gift to Oklahoma State University's athletics program. Says Pickens: "I'm 78 and want OSU to be competitive in the Big 12 before I'm gone."
University of Southern California alum and Star Wars creator George Lucas also made a splash with a $175 million gift to USC. The money will fund a 137,000-square-foot school for cinematic arts and support the school's endowment. Hollywood's foremost proponent of digital filmmaking hopes the money will convince academia to take the cinematic arts more seriously. "Film is history. How can that not be an important part of society?" asks Lucas.
Preserving history also motivates retired hedge fund manager Robert W. Wilson. He recently announced four $100 million challenge grants, to the World Monuments Fund, Environmental Defense, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Nature Conservancy. "I decided to try and preserve things that, but for my money, might go away forever," he says. The groups can reach the $100 million mark by meeting certain fund-raising goals such as raising more money from overseas. Wilson, 80, says his plan is to give away 70% of his wealth (his net worth tops $500 million) before he dies.
Wilson wants to preserve natural and man-made wonders, but the characteristically straight-talking Ted Turner boils conservation down to its essence. His Nuclear Threat Initiative, created to combat nuclear proliferation, wants to ensure mankind is around to enjoy such things. "Humanity may not be here in 30 to 40 years if we have a nuclear war," says the CNN founder. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?
By Suzanne Woolley and Bremen Leak. With Danna Cook in New York