Who are the biggest philanthropists in the world and why they donate their millions to charitable causes

The Roman philosopher Lucius Anneo Seneca in his work of the benefits He described charity as a practice that requires a difficult balance between the parties: “almost nothing is more unworthy than not knowing how to give or receive gifts” and “it is not easy to say what is more ignoble between denying a benefit or asking for it in return.” Philanthropy, etymologically love for the human beingfrom a philosophical point of view is the natural disposition of the spirit towards the solidarity with others.

The difference between traditional and modern philanthropy lies mainly in the temporal and spatial horizon of the initiatives. In the first case, it was mostly one-off donations for specific causes, such as the construction of a museum, a school or a hospital; today, however, solidarity extends over time, through structured actions that have long-term and global objectives such as the eradication of a disease.

Philanthrocapitalism, solidarity is organized around private foundations based on huge personal fortunes

This mutation has taken the name of philanthrocapitalism in which solidarity follows the laws of the market and is organized around private foundations based on enormous personal fortunes. The extraordinary economic resources that these organizations can count on often end up making up for the lack of state intervention, raising many doubts about their excessive influence.

For example, the confusion caused by Elon Musk’s recent threat to shut down his Starlink satellite system over the skies of Ukraine, after granting its free use to the country invaded by Russia. On occasions, the generosity of those who have accumulated gigantic wealth is not entirely disinterested, and philanthrocapitalism often hides, behind an apparent redistribution of wealth, the will to keep intact the mechanism that determines inequalities, pointing, incidentally, to to the creation of new markets.

The internet in Ukraine depends on Elon Musk. Its Starlink satellites are key to the war

NVIDIA Corporation/Flickr

Yale University, one of the most prestigious in the United States, has just created an internal committee for relations with its donors. The move came after a professor resigned last year in protest of what she described as an attempt to influence university programs by two large sponsors, one of which had brought in $500 million, the largest donation in the history of the institution.

In these terms, philanthropy is a typically American phenomenon and is also based on purely accounting reasons. In fact, for every dollar donated, the state returns 74 cents in the form of tax breaks. In addition, this money is donated to foundations that support programs where private sectors operate in which the philanthropists themselves are, almost always, investors. That said, philanthropy has undoubtedly contributed significantly to achieving important global goals.

Philanthropy has undoubtedly contributed significantly to achieving important global goals

Magazine Chronicle of Philanthropy quantifies the total collected from private donations in 2022 at 9.3 billion dollars. Bill Gates made the highest of the year: five billion dollars. The Microsoft founder donated the sum to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that is, the foundation created by himself together with his ex-wife to support projects around the world in the field of health and development. Gates, whose net worth is estimated at between $104 and $120 billion, had already announced his intention to donate $20 billion.

The ten greatest philanthropists of the last century

(Source: EdelGive Hurun)


Jamsetji Tata 1892 / India102.4 billion


Bill Gates & Melinda French Gates – 74.6 billion2000 / USA74.6 billion


henry wellcome 1936 / UK56.7 billion


howard hughes1953 / USA38.6 million


Warren Buffett2006/USA37.4 billion


George Soros1979 / USA34.8 billion


hans wilsdorf [1945/Switzerland31.5 billion


JK Lilly Sr 1937 / USA27.5 billion


John D Rockefeller1913 /USA26.8 billion


edsel ford 1936 / USA26.6 billion

“Looking ahead, my plan is to donate all my assets to the foundation, beyond what I spend for myself and my family,” the tycoon wrote on social media. Since 2000, the Gates Foundation has spent nearly $80 billion in philanthropy, employing some 1,800 people. This latest donation will allow the foundation to increase its annual availability by 50%: 9 billion dollars until 2026.

Gates, according to the 'EdelGive Hurun' report, is already the second largest philanthropist in history

Gates, according to the ‘EdelGive Hurun’ report, is already the second largest philanthropist in history

UN Geneva/Flickr

In this way, Gates, according to the EdelGive Hurun report, is already the second largest philanthropist in history, preceded only by the Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata (1839-1904), founder of the group of the same name and capable of donating 102 billion dollars to throughout his life. Also appearing in the ranking are the Americans Warren Buffet, who, at 93, has donated some 50 billion dollars, the financier George Soros, Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, the oilman John D. Rockefeller and the aviator and director Howard Hughes, but also the founder of Rolex, the Swiss Hans Wilsdorf.

The US economic elite is undoubtedly the most active in the field of philanthropy and operates in an extremely organized manner. A few years ago Bill and Melinda Gates together with Warren Buffett organized a dinner with a few and very selected guests. On the agenda was a proposal: why not allocate most of our wealth to charity and convince other billionaires to do the same?

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Antonio Orti

Elon Musk, Larry Page and Jeff Bezos

The guests liked the idea, and the following year, 2010, the campaign was born Giving Pledge (The Pledge to Give) with 40 members and a capital of 125 billion dollars. In 2022 there were 236 signatories from 28 countries with an estimated availability of 600 billion dollars. Elon Musk and the filmmaker George Lucas are also part of the pact, as well as the Indian Azim Premji and the Russian Vladimir Potanin. Among the most reluctant billionaires, and therefore highly criticized, to participate in the initiative are Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, heads of their respective foundations, Earth Fund and The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Among the great American philanthropists is also MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Bezos himself, who has donated at least 8.6 billion dollars in less than two years to more than 700 organizations focused on various issues such as racial justice, gender equality and public health. Also notable is former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who created the Bloomberg Philanthropies and has donated more than $12 billion to various organizations.

In Europe, philanthropy is generally practiced but not said

In addition to the fact that there are fewer tax benefits, in Europe the relationship with money is different and philanthropy is generally practiced but not said. More than creating their own foundations, millionaires channel money through non-profit associations, business or banking foundations, and in many cases donations are made anonymously. For this reason it is more complex to establish who the great European philanthropists are.

The sector has become so professional that there are even figures called philanthropy advisor, hired to guide clients through a maze of philanthropic options, clarifying goals, strategies and tools to maximize social impact. Jeff Bezos in an interview with CNN said: “I am discovering that philanthropy is not easy. Building Amazon was not easy: it required a lot of work, some prepared travel companions and excellent workers. I think philanthropy is similar.”

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Who are the biggest philanthropists in the world and why they donate their millions to charitable causes