Step aside, Rockefeller. Move over, Carnegie. Out of the way, Ford.
For the better part of a century, a few Gilded Age names dominated the ranks of big philanthropy.
In a matter of years, a new crop of ultra-wealthy Americans has eclipsed the old guard of philanthropic titans. With names like Soros, Gates, Bloomberg, Mercer, Koch and Zuckerberg, these new megadonors are upending long-established norms in the staid world of big philanthropy.
They have accumulated vast fortunes early in their lives. They are spending it faster and writing bigger checks. And they are increasingly willing to take on hot-button social and political issues — on the right and left — that thrust them into the center of contentious debates.
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Plenty of billionaires are still buying sports teams, building yachts and donating to museums and hospitals. But many new philanthropists appear less interested in naming a business school after themselves than in changing the world.
"They have a problem-solving mentality rather than a stewardship mentality," said David Callahan, founder of the website Inside Philanthropy and author of "The Givers," a book about today's major donors. "They are not saving their money for a rainy day. They want to have impact now."
George Soros, the hedge fund billionaire and Democratic donor, recently made public the transfer of some $18 billion to his Open Society Foundations, a sprawling effort to promote democracy and combat intolerance around the world. The gift, which essentially endowed Open Society in perpetuity, made it the second largest foundation by assets in the country. The only philanthropy with more resources is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"We're seeing a real changing of the guard," said Mr. Callahan. "The top foundations, especially measured by annual giving, are more and more piloted by people who are alive."
Having made billions and shaped the world with their companies, this new guard is setting lofty goals as they prepare to give their fortunes away. Take the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, established by the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. It is not looking to merely improve health in the developing world. One of its aspirations is to help "cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century."
That may sound like good news all around. If a handful of billionaires want to spend their fortunes saving lives, why not simply applaud them? But as their ambitions grow, so too does their influence, meaning that for better or worse, a few billionaires are wielding considerable influence over everything from medical research to social policy to politics.
"This isn't the government collecting taxes and deciding which social problems it wants to solve through a democratic process," said Eileen Heisman, chief executive of the National Philanthropic Trust, a nonprofit that works with foundations. "This is a small group of people, who have made way more money than they need, deciding what issues they care about. That affects us all."