Philanthropy is a top hobby for wealthy individuals, and while there is always a need for giving, philanthropy has taken on a new importance over the past 18 months. 

High-net-worth individuals play an outsized role in philanthropy and continue to do so amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, they donated $5.8 billion in direct response to COVID-19 in 2020, accounting for 27% of all COVID-19 philanthropy, according to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

There’s more to the story of how high-net-worth individuals responded to the pandemic through philanthropy, so read on for additional insights.

Note: in this article, we'll use the following definitions:

  • High-net-worth (HNW) individuals: those with a net worth over $5 million.
  • Very-high-net-worth (VHNW) individuals: those with a net worth between $5 and $30 million.
  • Ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) individuals: those with a net worth over $30 million.

Key findings

  • High-net-worth individuals gave $5.8 billion in philanthropic funding for COVID-19 in 2020 -- 27% of all COVID-19 philanthropy that year. 
  • In 2020, ultra-high-net-worth individuals gave, on average, over $2 million each to COVID-19- and social-justice-related causes. Overall, they were most likely to support educational initiatives in those areas. 
  • Five donors made philanthropic donations of over $1 billion in 2020: Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Scott, Michael Bloomberg, Philip and Penelope Knight, and Jack Dorsey. Scott was responsible for nearly all of the $968 million of COVID-19 philanthropy that high-net-worth individuals designated for BIPOC communities
  • Google was the sole corporation to give more than $1 billion in COVID-19-related philanthropy.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Jack Dorsey’s Start Small LLC each gave $1 billion towards COVID-19 philanthropy in 2020. 

High-net-worth individuals gave $5.8 billion worth of COVID-19-related philanthropic funding in 2020

HNW individuals made $5.8 billion in COVID-19-related philanthropic donations in 2020, according to data collected from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. That amounted to 27% of philanthropic funding for COVID-19 among major donor groups.

Only corporations and corporate foundations combined gave more with roughly $9.4 billion, worth about 44% of donations among major donors. 

Two other data points suggest that high-net-worth donors are powerhouse givers. While they were responsible for over a quarter of donations by value among major donor groups, HNW individuals composed just 4% of donors among major donor groups and distributed only 1% of gifts given, which are defined by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy as publicly announced donations above $50,000. 

Philanthropic funding for COVID-19 by donor type: 2020

Donor type

USD awarded

Number of gifts

Number of donors

USD awarded (%)

Number of gifts (%)

Number of donors (%)

Corporations/corporate foundations

$9,415,853,877

1,750

641

44%

5%

51%

High-net-worth individuals

$5,803,696,229

223

48

27%

1%

4%

Independent foundations

$4,682,915,564

7,497

230

22%

23%

18%

Public charities

$649,973,621

5,551

167

3%

17%

13%

Community foundations

$542,783,790

17,734

167

3%

54%

13%

Operating foundations

$330,223,663

8

4

2%

<1%

<1%

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (2021). "Philanthropy and COVID-19 Measuring one year of giving."

The average annual giving in 2020 from ultra-high-net-worth individuals to COVID-19-related causes or social justice-related causes was over $2 million

Ultra-high-net-worth philanthropists that gave to COVID-19-related causes or social justice-related causes between January through October 2020 gave, on average, over $2 million, per data collected by Wealth-X. 

Average annual giving

UHNW COVID-19 philanthropists

$2.8 million

UHNW social justice philanthropists

$2.6 million

UHNW major philanthropists

$1.3 million

"UHNW COVID-19 philanthropists: Those who have given or pledged philanthropically to the COVID-19 cause between January and October 2020. UHNW social justice philanthropists: Those who have given or pledged philanthropically to fighting social injustice and racial discrimination between June and October 2020. UHNW major philanthropists: Those who have given or pledged at least $100,000 or have given a single philanthropic gift of $50,000 or more in the past five years."

Wealth-X (2020). "COVID-19 Philanthropy: Spotlight on Major Giving in 2020."

Ultra-high-net-worth donors were most likely to give to educational causes in their area of giving, as well as healthcare and medical research, social services, and arts and culture. Unsurprisingly, all areas that have been impacted by the pandemic. 

Percentage of philanthropists who contributed to specific sectors

 

UHNW COVID-19 philanthropists

UHNW social justice philanthropists

UHNW major philanthropists

Education

80.80%

87.50%

63.50%

Healthcare and medical research

69.20%

68.10%

48.80%

Social services

65.90%

69.40%

47.10%

Arts and culture

54.90%

62.50%

44.60%

Children and youth development

39%

37.50%

28.60%

Wealth-X (2020). “COVID-19 Philanthropy: Spotlight on Major Giving in 2020.”

Five donors gave philanthropic awards of over $1 billion in 2020

Among the high-net-worth philanthropic community, five donors stood out by giving over $1 billion in 2020: Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Scott, Michael Bloomberg, Philip and Penelope Knight, and Jack Dorsey. 

They focused on a variety of causes:

  • Jeff Bezos made headlines by pledging $10 billion to establish the Bezos Earth Fund and $100 million to Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund. 
  • MacKenzie Scott donated over $5 billion to a variety of charities and causes, from COVID-19 relief and education with a focus on historically black colleges to social justice and gender equity. 
  • Michael Bloomberg devoted funds to COVID-19 relief and the pandemic’s impact on existing inequalities. 
  • The Knights gave to their own foundation and the University of Oregon. 
  • Jack Dorsey seeded his own foundation, Start Small LLC, with roughly $1 billion.

Name

USD awarded

Wealth source

Top cause

Jeff Bezos

$10,150,000,000

Technology

Environmental conservation

MacKenzie Scott

$5,734,000,000

Technology

Human services

Michael Bloomberg

$1,600,000,000

Media

Various

Philip and Penelope Knight

$1,365,667,500

Manufacturing and retail

Higher education

Jack Dorsey

$1,099,237,116

Technology

Pandemic relief

The Chronicle of Philanthropy (2021). "The Philanthropy 50."

MacKenzie Scott was responsible for nearly all of the $968 million of COVID-19 philanthropy that high-net-worth individuals designated for BIPOC communities

MacKenzie Scott accounted for almost all of the $968 million in specific COVID-19 philanthropic contributions that high-net-worth individuals gave to black, indigenous, and other people of color communities, per the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. 

The pandemic not only exacerbated many inequalities that minority groups face -- it occurred as social and racial justice movements picked up steam across the United States.

The only other high-net-worth donor to designate COVID-19 philanthropy specifically to BIPOC communities was Colin Kapernick, according to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. 

Scott and Kapernick were responsible for 44% of COVID-19 philanthropy that specifically designated funds for BIPOC communities, more than any other major donor type. 

Overall, major donors designated nearly $1.5 billion for BIPOC communities, 35% of all COVID-19 philanthropy. 

COVID-19 philanthropy specifically for BIPOC communities

Donor

USD awarded

Percent of funding from donor type

High-net-worth individuals

$968,100,000

44%

Independent foundations

$292,273,240

32%

Community foundations

$145,305,179

29%

Public charities

$28,396,854

21%

Corporations/corporate foundations

$63,769,330

11%

Donor

USD Awarded

Percent out of all COVID-19 philanthropy

All donor types

$1,497,944,603

35%

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (2021). "Philanthropy and COVID-19: Measuring one year of giving."

Google was the only corporation to give more than $1 billion in COVID-19-related philanthropy

Corporations are significant players in COVID-19 philanthropy, although only Google gave more than $1 billion in 2020. 

ByteDance, the Chinese company behind TikTok, gave $436.8 million while the Wells Fargo & Company Contributions Program gave $400 million.

Seven of the top ten corporate donors are headquartered in the United States. The top corporate donors outside the United States were ByteDance, along with Itau Unibanco, the largest bank in South America, located in Brazil, and Royal Holding Al Mada, a private investment fund controlled by the Morrocan royal family. 

Philanthropic funding for COVID-19: Top corporate donors

Name

Location

USD awarded

Number of gifts

Google.org

California, United States

$1,157,750,000

17

ByteDance

China

$436,840,000

10

Wells Fargo & Company Contributions Program

California, United States

$400,000,000

1

MasterCard Incorporated Contributions Program

New York, United States

$275,300,000

3

StartSmall LLC

California, United States

$256,366,996

106

Itau Unibanco Holding S.A.

Brazil

$239,826,923

1

Cisco Systems, Inc. Corporate Giving Program

California, United States

$220,000,000

4

Visa Foundation

California, United States

$210,000,000

2

Royal Holding Al Mada

Morocco

$197,912,028

1

Wells Fargo Foundation

Minnesota, United States

$175,000,000

1

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (2021). "Philanthropy and COVID-19" Measuring one year of giving."

Two independent foundations gave $1 billion to COVID-19 philanthropic efforts: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation

Some high-net-worth individuals and families opt to funnel their philanthropy through their own foundations, two of which gave over $1 billion in COVID-19 philanthropy: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation.

Independent foundations by total COVID-19 funding: 2020

Name

Location

USD awarded

Number of gifts

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Washington, United States

$1,327,529,040

398

The Rockefeller Foundation

New York, United States

$1,111,490,484

86

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

New York, United States

$215,510,000

11

Open Society Foundations

New York, United States

$200,000,000

2

Bloomberg Philanthropies, Inc.

New York, United States

$166,300,000

7

Ford Foundation

New York, United States

$141,464,495

191

Lilly Endowment Inc.

Indiana, United States

$134,625,000

18

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

New Jersey, United States

$119,593,314

230

Minderoo Foundation Trust

Australia

$100,537,600

1

Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

Texas, United States

$100,000,000

2

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (2021). "Philanthropy and COVID-19 Measuring one year of giving."

Jack Dorsey’s Start Small LLC received the most COVID-19 philanthropic funding in 2020: $1 billion

Start Small, the philanthropic foundation spun up by Jack Dorsey, received $1 billion from the co-founder of Twitter and Square to put towards COVID-19-related causes, making it the top recipient of COVID-19 philanthropy in 2020. 

The donation from Dorsey was worth roughly one-fifth of his net worth at the time and stands out as among the largest donations from an individual in response to the pandemic.

Dorsey’s approach has turned some heads both because of the magnitude of money available to be dispersed through Start Small as well as the speed, transparency, and relatively little bureaucracy associated with the foundation. 

Other top recipients include the Gavi Alliance, which aims to make vaccines more available in low-income countries, the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, which is working on making new, accessible therapeutics to fight COVID-19, and Feeding America, a network of food banks in the United States that received $100 million from Jeff Bezos in 2020. 

Top recipients of COVID-19 philanthropic funding: 2020

Name

Location

USD awarded

Number of gifts

Start Small LLC

California, United States

$1,000,000,000

1

Gavi Alliance

Switzerland

$415,000,000

6

COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator

Washington, United States

$198,000,000

9

Feeding America

Illinois, United States

$126,660,100

37

Easter Seals (national office and affiliates)

United States

$126,000,000

1

South African Future Trust

South Africa

$111,263,880

2

The Skoll Foundation

California, United States

$100,000,000

1

Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund

India

$91,388,110

6

UK Community Foundations

United Kingdom

$89,192,124

44

Solidarity Response Fund

South Africa

$83,447,910

2

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (2021). "Philanthropy and COVID-19" Measuring one year of giving."

The role of high-net-worth donors in philanthropy

Philanthropy today has taken on a new importance. In many areas, and in light of a decline in corporate giving and donations from non-high-net-worth, high-net-worth individuals have stepped up. 

With more giving comes more scrutiny, and there’s a growing conversation about the effects that philanthropy driven by fewer and fewer donors may have on the independence of charitable organizations that rely on those donations. More attention is being paid to which causes are receiving funding from high-net-worth individuals, how those causes are selected, and whether they reduce inequality or tackle the root causes of the problems they seek to address.

Some high-net-worth individuals, like Jack Dorsey and MacKenzie Scott, have been explicit in shaping their charitable efforts to respond to critiques of the now outsized role that high-net-worth individuals play in philanthropy. 

Regardless of the debate over high-net-worth giving, at the end of the day, studies have found that most charity is driven by altruism - that people are simply driven to help those in need regardless of what they get in return. 

Studies have also found that financial constraints are the primary barrier to giving. 

By making the world smarter, happier, and richer, The Motley Fool hopes to enable more individuals to give back. The Motley Fool Foundation, a new public charity with the goal of unlocking financial freedom for all, will launch later this year, and extend The Motley Fool’s long tradition of giving.

Sources