News and analysis
December 31, 2010

Biggest Gifts to Charity Falter in Bad Economy


Leonard Blavatnik

In yet another sign of how the nation’s economic slump is causing struggles for many charities, big donations from individuals and their foundations fell for the second consecutive year. The 10 biggest gifts donated by Americans in 2010 totaled more than $1.3-billion, compared with $2.7-billion in 2009 and $8-billion in 2008.

In addition, only six individuals announced gifts of $100-million or more in 2010, a minor decline from 2009, when seven donors gave gifts of $100-million or more, but a significant drop from 2008, when 15 philanthropists announced gifts of that size.

Topping the list is the approximately $117.2-million that the businessman Leonard Blavatnik pledged to the University of Oxford, to establish the Blavatnik School of Government. Mr. Blavatnik, who was born and raised in Russia, emigrated to the United States in 1978. He is the founder of Access Industries, an international corporation in New York, London, and Moscow.

Not a Record

While 2010 was not the worst year for giving by the country’s wealthiest Americans, it came close. In the 13 years The Chronicle has been compiling the list of the biggest gifts of the year, the total dropped below $1.4-billion only once, in 2003, when big gifts totaled $1.2-billion.

The decline in giving by the very wealthy comes at a time when three of America’s wealthiest people—Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates—have been urging the nation’s billionaires to give at least half their wealth to charities. Four of the people who made the biggest gifts of the year have signed the Gates-Buffett giving pledge: Irwin and Joan Jacobs, who made their fortune in the technology industry (and this year pledged $75-million to the University of California at San Diego); the oilman T. Boone Pickens ($100-million to Oklahoma State University), and the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ($100-million to improve the public-school system in Newark, N.J.).

Few Gifts to the Neediest

The Chronicle’s analysis also found that giving by the very wealthy is relatively sluggish compared with donations by other affluent people. The value of gifts of $1-million or more announced in 2010 totaled close to $3.6-billion from January 1 to December 15, marking only a slight decline from 2009 when gifts of that amount totaled $3.7-billion. (See all the gifts in The Chronicle’s database of donations of $1-million or more.)

Despite the recession’s debilitating effects on so many Americans, few of the very wealthiest donors gave to programs that directly help those in need. Of all the donations on the list, almost half were for new buildings or campus expansion at universities. Two philanthropists, however, made gifts meant to help struggling young people. Mr. Pickens earmarked his Oklahoma State gift to endow scholarships while Mr. Zuckerberg’s money will be used to help improve schools in one of America most poverty-ridden cities.

About this list

The Chronicle’s list shows the single biggest donations announced in the year. In February, The Chronicle will publish its annual compilation of the 50 Americans who gave the most to charity throughout 2010.