July 19, 2024

For several years running, we’ve used Forbes’ annual list of the 400 richest people in the U.S. as a way to highlight the fact that most billionaires just don’t give much of their money away. Forbes’ “philanthropy scores,” which assign each billionaire a rating of 1 to 5 (or N/A) for how much of their fortunes they’ve moved out the door, tell that story plainly.
On this year’s list, nearly half of all the entrants received a philanthropy score of either 1 — indicating that they’ve given away less than 1% of their wealth — or “N/A,” meaning Forbes couldn’t locate any information about their giving at all. Out of the full 400, only nine received the highest score of 5 this year, meaning they’ve given away over 20% of their wealth. Another 18 billionaires got a 4, having given away 10% to 19.99% of their fortunes.
That said, there was some modest improvement across the board. For instance, only 11 billionaires got a 4 last year versus this year’s 18, while 54 scored 3 this year, an increase from 44 in 2021. And the number of billionaires in the “N/A” category shrank in 2022 from 65 to 55.
The main reason for this uptick isn’t greater billionaire generosity. It’s (relatively) smaller billionaire fortunes. Stock market turbulence has put a damper on over a decade of skyrocketing billionaire wealth, a bonanza that went on mostly uninterrupted through the onset of COVID and even accelerated in some cases.
Many on the list are still seeing gains, but as a collective, these richest billionaires have lost some of their wealth. As the folks at Forbes figure it, the richest 400 Americans are $500 billion poorer than they were last year. Tech moguls (notably Mark Zuckerberg) have led the rout, but tech is far from the only sector where billionaire wealth has declined. “The minimum net worth required to make the list also fell, by $200 million, to $2.7 billion,” Chase Peterson-Withorn wrote for Forbes. “It’s the first time since the Great Recession that America’s ultrawealthy aren’t richer than the year before.”
In a philanthropic landscape increasingly dominated by living mega-donors, the ebb and flow of the stock market may very well have a greater effect on overall giving than in the past. While we don’t expect the long-term trend toward a more billionaire-centric philanthrosphere to change anytime soon, a lengthy slowdown may lead to fewer big, splashy giving initiatives and a lighter philanthropic hand from the ultra-rich. There are some definite positives to that, but it wouldn’t be the best of news for those of us who want to see billionaires part with a lot more of their wealth.
Luckily, several developments reflected on this year’s list challenge the norm of billionaire stinginess. Take, for instance, this major piece of news from Gates-land: Bill Gates’ informal announcement during a Forbes keynote discussion that the Gates Foundation is looking to spend down within 25 years. “That’s probably the period of time where Melinda and I will be around to help make sure it stays on track,” Gates said. “We think spending all the money in that timeframe makes sense.”
We have yet to hear any real specifics about what that’ll entail, beyond a focus on bringing “down to very low levels” infectious diseases and other diseases that “make the world inequitable,” as Gates put it. The key point here: This is a major acceleration for the foundation, which has long intended to spend down within 20 years of both Bill and Melinda’s deaths. In a quarter-century, if they’re still with us, Bill will be 91 and Melinda 83.
It’s pure speculation at this point, but one reason for the Gateses’ recalculation could be a change of heart from Warren Buffett, 92, whose fortune has long seemed destined to further fatten the Gates Foundation’s already prodigious endowment. We wouldn’t necessarily lament a change to that arrangement.
Whatever the story — and we’ll be digging into it further — both Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates now seem firmly entrenched on the short list of billionaires who received a philanthropy score of 5 this year. Note that last year, both of them scored 4. Another predictable entrant into the “fives” club this year is MacKenzie Scott (who just filed for divorce from Dan Jewett, the schoolteacher she married after she parted ways with Jeff Bezos). Between her vast, groundbreaking giving and Amazon’s flagging stock price, Scott’s net worth has dropped from a high of around $60 billion to around $35 billion. Not bad progress in her quest to “empty the safe.”
The other “fives” this year scored the same last year, as well: Lynn Schusterman, John Arnold, Amos Hostetter, George Soros and Gordon Moore. Julian Robertson, who scored a 5 last year, passed away in August with an impressive quantity of giving under his belt, but with nearly $5 billion still in the bank. First Premier Bank founder T. Denny Sanford, who also scored a 5 in 2021, didn’t make this year’s Forbes 400.
Elsewhere on this year’s list, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg moved up a level in their philanthropy scores, most likely an effect of their falling net worths rather than their rising giving. Bezos’ score is now a 2; Zuckerberg’s a 3. As one might expect given his stratospheric recent wealth gains and fly-by-night approach to giving, world’s richest man Elon Musk is still sitting at a 1. Besides Musk, pretty much all the other billionaires leading the Forbes list saw their wealth decline over the past year. A few exceptions include Mike Bloomberg, Charles Koch and Julia Koch.

The overall takeaway from this year’s Forbes list and its philanthropy scores remains unchanged. Billionaires are still a stingy lot for the most part, and the status quo that has long seen the ultra-rich give away pennies on the dollar is still in place. Stock market volatility notwithstanding, so is the political and economic status quo favoring long-term billionaire wealth accumulation.
However, there’s greater reason than ever before to expect more robust and unconventional billionaire giving down the line. Chuck Feeney may have much-needed company sometime soon(ish). An acceleration from both Gateses and maybe Buffett, and MacKenzie Scott’s giving, are just the top-line examples. Recent moves like Yvon Chouinard’s decision to give away his entire company are challenging the norm of muted incrementalism in billionaire philanthropy, and reflect the fact that even at this level of wealth, emptying the safe is possible and might not even be that hard.

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