Recent philanthropic efforts have seen more funds gifted than ever before. 2016’s top 50 philanthropists donated a total of $5.6 billion, roughly half of the $10.2 billion given by 2017’s 10 highest donors alone.
2017’s top three donors became household names for their contributions toward technological advancement as well as their record-breaking altruistic endeavors. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Michael and Susan Dell contributed a combined $7.5 billion last year; however the differences between old-school philanthropy and the undertakings of today’s tech giants are more than just numerical.
In an era where massive funds are funnelled toward philanthropy, it comes as little surprise that donors prefer to keep tabs on their cash. Each of 2017’s top three philanthropic players departs from the traditional giving formula of relative non-participation; no longer do major donors simply cut a check without considering what will happen next. The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation, and the Dell Foundation were all created to allow their founders a greater degree of control over how their funds are implemented.
The goals of these organizations are left intentionally ambiguous. The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative’s stated objective is to “advance human potential and promote equal opportunity,” while the Gates and Dell Initiatives focus on tackling wide-ranging global issues such as poverty and healthcare shortages. Their missions’ width affords philanthropic group founders the freedom to become directly involved in choosing precisely where their money is going, and how it is spent.
The traditional practice of donating to an exterior cause is far from departed, although five of 2017’s 10 largest donations benefit flagship universities, like the gift by Florence Irving—widow of Sysco Corporation cofounder Herb Irving—of $600 million to improve Columbia University’s medical research facilities.
While university donations undoubtedly contribute to progress, a younger generation of donors like Zuckerberg and Chan seem to be concerned more with solving the world’s most pressing issues in a visible, viable way. Their philanthropic efforts began at a young age—well before retirement—which may explain their frustration with the fact that so many global challenges still persist, in spite of the fact that large-scale philanthropic endeavors have continued for more than a century.
Another Silicon Valley donation appears to hybridize a traditional giving model with the high-involvement strategies practiced by Zuckerberg and Gates. Jack and Laura Dangermond, founders of the Environmental Systems Research Institute, contributed $165 million to aid the Nature Conservancy in efforts to maintain the Santa Barbara coastline. While the donation wasn’t directed through an organization run by its givers, the Dangermonds were fully aware of how that particular gift would be implemented in tackling a specific issue.