Philanthropy in one form or another has been a signal feature of human civilization from the beginning. By about 2,000 BCE in China, families assisted senior adults, widows, and orphans with financial donations.
In ancient times, those of Jewish faith contributed one-tenth of their income to help community members in need. The English word “tithe” means “one-tenth,” and giving away a portion of one’s income, time, or goods for the greater health of the community continues as a central practice in world religions. While Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other traditions each have their individual outlooks on the practice, the high regard for acts of charity is universal in sacred texts.
Fast-forward to the modern world, where many of today’s top philanthropists and foundations either explicitly or implicitly center their giving on universal ethical principles that value human beings’ responsibility for one another. A number of experts point to the 1990s as a “golden age” of philanthropic giving, when a booming economy fueled a corresponding boom in philanthropy.
Individuals who had been wildly successful in business brought their strategic insights to the world of giving, creating lasting and transformational legacies through foundations and projects designed to strengthen public health, education, and other major social goods. Among them were Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whose charitable contributions since 1994 total well over $50 billion.
The 90s were also an era in which “activist” philanthropists and institutions stepped into the spotlight as advocates and public educators on a wide range of issues important to them. Gates offers another excellent example here.
Bill and Melinda Gates joined Berkshire Hathaway CEO and super-investor Warren Buffett in establishing the “Giving Pledge” in 2010. Since that time, an increasing number of other billionaires have committed themselves to giving away all or most of their wealth to worthy causes during their lifetimes. A January 19, 2021, Forbes magazine piece listed its editors’ choices for the 25 “most philanthropic billionaires.” Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, MacKenzie Scott, and Charles Feeney were among this group.
Scott, for example, has begun putting her share of ex-husband Jeff Bezos’ Amazon fortune to good use. Over only her first year of strategic giving, she contributed some $1.7 billion to more than 100 boots-on-the-ground organizations working toward social, racial, and economic justice. Her total 2020 charitable contributions surpassed the $4 billion mark, and were targeted to organizations working to end poverty and food insecurity in local communities.
And Charles Feeney, co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers retail empire and known as the “James Bond of Philanthropy,” whose “Giving While Living” idea influenced Buffett and the Gates in creating their Giving Pledge. In September 2020, Forbes profiled Feeney as a billionaire who is now “officially broke.” After giving away all but $2 million of his wealth, his Atlantic Philanthropies organization has contributed more than $8 billion to educational institutions and foundations, almost completely without fanfare.
Feeney has focused much of his efforts on improving the healthcare system in Vietnam. His gifts have enabled the once-struggling country to build out its schools, libraries, and medical infrastructure, including running successful public education campaigns to discourage smoking. One of his initiatives led Vietnam to pass life-saving legislation requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.
In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gates’ foundation was at the forefront of funding the world’s response, contributing some $450 million to that effort alone. And Gates himself has demonstrated his chops as a spokesman for the value of public health projects, educating the public on the need for effective vaccines through interviews throughout popular media.
Gates and other major donors have used their philanthropy to tackle the COVID-19 crisis in a number of specific ways, funding large-scale research and development projects focused on testing and vaccines, as well as rapid response through community-based organizations and long-term programs to combat the inequities that the pandemic has laid bare.
According to Candid, the charity-and-grant-tracking organization formed from the merger of the venerable GuideStar and Foundation Center, the sheer size of recent donations from major philanthropists over recent years is nothing short of astonishing. In the single month of May 2020, Candid’s team noted, global philanthropic funding surpassed $10 billion.
During the pandemic, something else became apparent: major donations were being processed and disbursed at previously unimaginable speeds, and with fewer stipulations attached, in order to get the dollars working immediately in communities where they were so desperately needed to combat the effects of the pandemic.
The rapid response of the medical community to COVID-19 lies on the foundations of the wealth of biomedical research of the 20th and 21st centuries—research funded in no small part by philanthropy. Over the last few decades, philanthropic individuals and organizations have paid to offer training and professional development to promising early-career biomedical scientists, supported partnerships between various companies and organizations in order to advance product development, facilitated collaboration, developed public education efforts, and served as a voice for patient-centered practices.
While federal dollars typically support early-stage, exploratory research projects, private philanthropy often comes in at the point of supporting initiatives to build the repositories of hard data that make labs and their projects more competitive for further federal funding. In addition, philanthropic funders, being more flexible than government sources, are particularly well-positioned to get much-needed capital to projects that may be both high-risk and high-reward in terms of social payoff over the long-term.
The Impact of Philanthropic Vision
Driven forward by thousands of years of human generosity, the philanthropic community continues to serve as a force in building and growing societies—and creating a better life for the people within them.