Billionaires, Big Givers and the Bets They Make: A Timeline

March 11, 2020  • Jane Wales & Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation

By Jane Wales, Vice President of the Aspen Institute and Executive Director of its Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation (PSI), and founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum

1890-1920s: The Institutional Wave—endowed general-purpose foundations with broad mandates and professional staffs.

♦ 1889. Having funded 3,000 libraries, American Tycoon Andrew Carnegie publishes the essay Gospel of Wealth, asserting that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced. In 2011 he establishes the Carnegie Corporation of New York with a broad mandate “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding”. In 1917, at Andrew Carnegie’s direction, his foundation created TIAA-CREF so that teachers could have pensions.

1913. John D. Rockefeller and John D. Rockefeller Jr found the Rockefeller Foundation focused on global health, including the creation of the field of public health, the development of the vaccine to prevent yellow fever, and the development of the field of molecular biology. It is credited later with helping to finance the Green Revolution, bringing new technologies and new management techniques to agriculture in the developing world and transforming India from a grain importer to a grain exporter saving almost 1b from starvation, but also stirring controversy for its use of pesticides and genetically modified plants. In 1970 agronomist Norman Borlaug is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role.

♦ 1917. Julius Rosenwald Fund is created to support public schools, universities and museums. Having endowed the Tuskegee Institute in 1912, the former Sears Roebuck president worked with Booker T. Washington to create 5,000 Rosenwald Schools for African American children across the American South.

♦ 1924-1930. Sebastian Spering Kresge, Charles Stewart Mott, and Will Keith Kellogg form foundations. In 2016 these are among the ten foundations to (along with Ford, Carnegie, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others) that collaborate to help Flint, Michigan overcome its water crisis. Their combined grants for this purpose totaled $125m.

♦ 1936. Edsel and Henry Ford found the Ford Foundation with a broad mandate to “advance human wellbeing.”  Now a social justice foundation–active in advancing civil rights at home and human rights abroad, including working to end apartheid.  Its diverse portfolio had a singular focus on addressing inequality of wealth, income and opportunity.

1950-1979: The Strategic Philanthropy Wave—problem solving in an era of collaboration and “big bets.”

♦ 1964-6. Silicon Valley philanthropy begins. David and Lucile Packard and William and Flora Hewlett foundations established. While distinct, the two foundations share a commitment to global development, women’s health, and climate change mitigation. They helped champion the concept and practice of  “strategic” philanthropy with impact measurements. In 2008 they create Climate Works Foundation, an aggregated fund that other donors have since joined.

♦ 1978. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur establish the MacArthur Foundation, best known for “Genius Grants”. Along with Rockefeller, Ford and others, the foundation pioneers  “impact investing,” investing the Foundation’s endowment in enterprises aligned with its philanthropic goals. In 2017, launches its 100 & Change open competition and awards $100m to a joint project of the International Rescue Committee and Sesame Street. Creates the affiliated nonprofit Levers for Change to manage customized open competitions for other donors, posting proposals of vetted finalists in a searchable database online.

1980-2000: The Activist Wave—politics, policy, governance, activism and “giving while living.”

1980. Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation is established. While financing the ideas and initiatives of conservatives and Libertarians, has recently partnered with more centrist and liberal foundations to advance criminal justice reform, marriage equality and immigration reform. In 2017, the foundation made a $26m grant to the Thurgood Marshall Fund to support research at historically black colleges on education, criminal justice and entrepreneurship in disadvantaged communities. Koch’s network of likeminded philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, scholars and activists incorporated as the Stand Together Foundation, with the stated mission of combatting poverty and bridging society’s divides.

♦ 1982. Atlantic Philanthropies is established by reclusive billionaire Chuck Feeney. The spend-down foundation ended grantmaking in 2016 and will close its doors as planned in 2020. Feeney is an advocate of “giving while living.” Gave away $8b through the foundation.

♦ 1987. Walmart founder Sam and Helen Walton create the Walton Family Foundation. The largest supporter of charter schools serving low income families; has provided startup funds to one out of every four charter schools in the country.

♦ 1988. Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen and his sister Jody launch the Paul G. Allen Foundation to strengthen communities and address climate change, restore ocean health and protect wildlife. As part of their philanthropy, the Allens founded the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

♦ 1993. George Soros creates the Open Society Foundation to promote democracy and support civil society groups in the former Soviet sphere and beyond. In all he donates $32b to his foundations operating in over 37 countries. In 1991 he endowed the Central European University, a liberal arts university founded to educate the next generation of leaders and scholars in the region.

♦ 1997. Media mogul Ted Turner pledges $1 billion to the United Nations. When he learns the UN cannot accept private donations, he establishes the UN Foundation.

2000-Current: The Effectiveness Wave—self-made (young) billionaires, new types of organization, emphasis on “scale,” “effective altruism” and innovation in philanthropy.

♦ 2000. Forerunner of what will become the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is established. BMGF is the largest foundation in the world and focuses on global health, global poverty and US education. Among its innovations are public-private partnerships like the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN); the Global Fund to Flight AIDs Tuberculosis and Malaria; and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance which has vaccinated over288 million people in the past decade. It’s Giving Pledge network of billionaire givers is supported by a team of professionals in the practice of philanthropy.

♦ 2003. Jeff Skoll launches the Skoll Foundation to source, support and celebrate “social entrepreneurs,” individuals from around the world who have devised ingenious solutions to large societal problems and relentlessly pursued strategies for addressing them.

♦ 2004. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam launch the Omidyar Network, a limited liability corporation that makes grants and investments to advance philanthropic causes. Other billionaire givers who have opted to create LLCs include Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Pricilla Chan (the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, 2015), Laurene Powell Jobs (the Emerson Collective, 2004), and John and Laura Arnold (Arnold Ventures, 2008).

♦ 2004. Salesforce founder Marc Benioff publishes “The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Can Make Doing Good and Integral Part of Doing Business” advocating that companies donate 1% of product value, 1% of equity and 1% of employee hours to charitable causes. He and his wife Lynne donate $110m to the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

♦ 2006. Michael Bloomberg founds Bloomberg Philanthropies. Bloomberg’s “big bets” include $20m in a search for a cure for ALS; the “Beyond Coal” campaign to retire 60 percent of US coal-fired power plants by the end of 2020 ($64m) ; programs to treat and prevent opoiod abuse ($50m); a challenge grant to twenty of the most populous cities needing technical assistance to address climate change ($70m); and a $360m grant to curb tobacco use in low and middle income countries.

♦ 2010. Eli and Edythe Broad become one of the first signers of the Giving Pledge. Their eponymous foundation focuses on support for public schools, science and medical research, and contemporary art. Their giving is estimated at $4b. While their support for charter schools has met with controversy among teachers’ unions, the foundation has persevered.

♦ 2011. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna launch the Good Ventures Foundation. In 2017 they establish Open Philanthropy Project to promote transparency in their (and others’) giving.

2015. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan create the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI.) Focus is on education, criminal justice reform, scientific and medical research, and curing diseases. In 2015 it helps fund equipment and technology for a new public hospital serving low-income populations. In 2017 joined the BMGF and Bloomberg Philanthropies is establishing a global health initiative aimed at saving 100m lives. Their strategy has been to combine grantmaking, investing and advocacy.

♦ 2016. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation incubates Blue Meridian Partners, an aggregated fund which pools the dollars of established philanthropies to scale proven strategies for lifting families out of poverty. Blue Meridian spins off as a free-standing organization in 2018, having raised $1.7b. It is one of a growing number of aggregated funds designed to encourage giving by new donors. Each of its grants can be as large as $200m. And it has added impact investing to its methods.

♦ 2020. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man announces the Bezos Earth Fund, a grant-making initiative to combat climate change (after Amazon employees pressed for climate action.) Earlier giving was focused on homelessness in the Seattle area.

For an interactive table of recent “big bets” made from 2015 through 2018,  Bridgespan’s U.S. Donor Philanthropic Big Bets Database.