Charity Donation Check Signature

The 50 people on The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual list of the biggest U.S. donors collectively gave some $7.8 billion to charity in 2018.

The Chronicle reported that last year’s total was about half the $14.7 billion the top 50 donors in 2017 gave. Even so, it was much more that the $5.6 billion given in 2016 and the $7 billion contributed in 2015.

The report said it was uncertain whether the reduced giving reflected a greater sense of caution among donors about the state of the world. What was clear from the nature of those gifts, it said, was philanthropists’ concern about the future.

Several donors on the list focused their philanthropy on artificial intelligence. These donors and others are looking to quicken the pace of discoveries that might otherwise be decades away, Robert Kissane, chairman of the consulting firm CCS Fundraising, told The Chronicle.

Last year, Stephen Schwarzman, a private equity manager, donated $350 million to MIT for a computing college with a focus on AI, and the entrepreneur Amin Khoury gave Northwestern University $50 million for a similar project. The late Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder, gave $125 million to his own Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

AI is also raising concerns among some proponents, according to The Chronicle. It said Schwarzman, for one, wants to see better analysis of AI before it is released on the world, worrying that rogue states could use quantum computing to hack into encrypted data used by banks and the federal government.

Several tech billionaires on the top 50 list are concerned about the privacy of individual data collected by digital products, such as Facebook and text messaging.

Last year, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton gave $50 million to the Signal Foundation, which makes an encrypted communications app. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and his wife Sara gave some $100 million to their foundation to help fund several organizations they had previously supported, including two charities focused on digital privacy.

Other donors on the top 50 list focused their philanthropy on issues around democracy and the media. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark donated $144 million to his foundation and donor-advised fund in 2018 through which he awarded $20 million to create the Markup, a nonprofit news organization that investigates how companies are using technology in ways that affect people and society.

Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, and his wife Pam continued to fund the growing number of organizations associated with the nonprofit arm of their Omidyar Network. The Chronicle reported that in 2018, Omidyar spun off what had been its governance and citizen engagement programs into Luminate, which is both a charity and an LLC.

This year, it said, Luminate expects to make around $65 million in grants and investments in four impact areas: civic empowerment, data and digital rights, financial transparency and independent media.

Eric Kessler, senior managing director at Arabella Advisors, told The Chronicle that a dystopian vision has taken hold in society. Philanthropists, whether they share that pessimism or are more optimistic, he said, are looking to make gifts that lead to long-term improvements.

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