Wise Giving Wednesday: Donating Like a Billionaire

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calendar icon Mar 06, 2024

Many of you may have heard the recent news story about Ruth Gottesman, Ed.D., a 93-year-old financier who donated $1 billion to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York, to fund tuition for all students going forward. She is a former professor at the school whose late husband made billions running an investment firm. Dr. Gottesman was on the school’s board of trustees and currently serves as chair. On March 1, 2024, inspired by this circumstance, Jeremy Engle of The Learning Network of The New York Times, wrote an interesting student opinion piece in the Times: “If You Had $1 Billion to Give Away, What Charity Would You Support?”  Jeremy encouraged students 13 years old and older in the U.S. and Britain to read the Times article and post their thoughts on what causes and/or organizations they would support with such a large gift. As of the date of this post, the responses have included a variety of recommendations.

This generosity presents an impressive and interesting situation not only because of the size of the gift but also due to the nature of the donor restriction. If any medical school received such a large contribution, how likely would they similarly fund student tuition? The fact that this story made headlines around the country signals its unique use, but it also prompts people to think about how they might decide to apply such a philanthropic gold mine. If given the opportunity, would one choose a favorite charitable organization or spread the donation around many groups devoted to a shared cause, like cancer research or addressing environmental issues? There is no single correct answer, and that helps fuel attention on making this choice.

But this story also reminds us of other challenges facing the charitable sector. The number of U.S. households contributing to charity has declined. Research by the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy has shown that while 66.2% of American households contributed to charity in 2000, only 49.6% of households donated in 2018. As a result, some charities are now more frequently turning to wealthier donors for support to help fill this growing gap. For more on this and related donor matters, see the Give.org Donor Trust Special Report on Donor Participation which was released in June 2023.

In our experience, most of the users of the evaluative reports produced by BBB Wise Giving Alliance want to verify charity trustworthiness by seeking charities that meet the 20 BBB Charity Standards. Although they are not making huge gifts like Dr. Gottesman, they are responding to various appeals requesting their support. For many charitable organizations, this supply of smaller gifts has served as a reliable backbone of American philanthropy. Large donations are certainly encouraged and welcomed by charities, but those large gifts are unlikely to be repeated by the same contributor. Ultimately, the health of the charitable sector depends on a broad culture of charitable support, with inclusive engagement of many small donors in giving, rather than over-reliance on a few wealthy donors.

Heart of Giving Podcast

In this week’s Heart of Giving Podcast, our featured guest is Joey Zumaya, Founding Partner of The Zumaya Group which leads social impact teams and initiatives that include nonprofit engagement, community development and diversity.  

Recent Reports

We are always working with charities to publish or update reports for donors. Visit Give.org or local BBBs to check out any charity before giving. Our recently evaluated charities include:

Finally, remember to let us know by going to give.org/charity-inquiry if you are interested in seeing a report on a charity not on the list and we will do our best to produce one.

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