Peer-Pressure Philanthropy

When Ralph C. Wilson, the businessman who founded the Buffalo Bills football team in the fifties, died last year at the age of ninety-five, he left behind the tiny, little-known Ralph C. Wilson Foundation. It’s hard to learn much about the foundation—a Google search doesn’t turn up a Web site—which might be partly because it didn’t do much: its assets, as of 2013, were under two million dollars, according to public records. While he was alive, Wilson had dabbled in philanthropy, giving money to medical institutions and others, but none of his public contributions had been particularly large. When he died, though, he left instructions for the Bills to be sold and for most of the proceeds, about a billion dollars, to go to his foundation. With that contribution, he became the second most generous philanthropist of last year, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which, on Sunday, published its annual list of the fifty most generous donors in the United States. It was the first time Wilson had made the list at all.

That sort of narrative isn’t unusual. Rich people of years past have often held on to most of their fortunes while alive, contributing it to charity only after death. Others, like the number-three donor, Ted Stanley, whose fortune comes from a collectibles company he founded, have waited until later in life before starting to make big gifts. The top philanthropist of the year was Bill Gates, who is fifty-nine years old; along with his wife, he gave $1.5 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But other names at the top of this year’s list look different. The fourth, fifth, and sixth most-generous philanthropists were Jan Koum, a co-founder of WhatsApp, who is thirty-eight; Sean Parker, the investor, who is thirty-five; and Nicholas Woodman, the founder of GoPro, who is thirty-nine, along with his wife, Jill. Combined, the fifty top philanthropists gave nearly ten billion dollars; twelve of the people or couples were aged fifty or younger.

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