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The Most Generous Philanthropist You've Never Heard Of

You may be surprised to learn who is the most generous philanthropist of the last century. Spoiler: it's not Bill Gates.


Jamsetji Tata

An inflation-adjusted ranking of the world's most generous individuals of the last 100 years, compiled by Hurun Research and EdelGive Foundation, showed with total donations value estimated at US$102.4bn, Mumbai-based Jamsetji Tata (1839-1904), was the world’s biggest philanthropist.

Tata made his fortune in the 1870s after floating Central India Spinning Weaving and Manufacturing Company and set up the JN Tata Endowment in 1892 for higher education, which was the beginning of Tata Trusts. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, often mentioned him as the ‘One Man Planning Commission’.  

The inaugural report, titled the 2021 EdelGive Hurun Philanthropists of the Century, based its ranking on Total Philanthropic Value, calculated as the value of the assets today together with the sum of gifts or distributions to date. For example, the Total Philanthropic Value of George Soros is the sum of current endowment of value of The Open Society Foundations (US$18bn) together with donations to date of US$16.8bn, ie a total of US$34.8bn. The Giving Pledges have not considered due to their non-binding nature.

Rupert Hoogewerf, Chairman and Chief Researcher of Hurun Report, said: “The stories of the world’s biggest philanthropists of the last century tells the story of modern philanthropy. The legacies of the world’s earliest billionaires such as Carnegie and Rockefeller, through to the Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s of today, show how wealth created has been redistributed.” 

“Whilst American and European philanthropists may have dominated the thinking of philanthropy over the last century, Jamsetji Tata, founder of India’s Tata Group, is the world’s biggest philanthropist.”

He added that many of the philanthropists made the donation in the second generation rather than the first, such as the Ford Foundation, which was set up by the son of Henry Ford.

Hoogewerf also criticised today’s billionaires for not doing enough philanthropy. "They are making money much faster than they are giving it away. The speed of wealth creation is nothing short of staggering. Three individuals added more than US$50bn in a single year, led by Elon Musk with US$151bn, on the back of the rise of e-cars, whilst e-commerce billionaires Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Colin Huang of Pinduoduo added US$50bn each. At this rate, expect to see fifty or more break through the US$100bn mark within the next five years.”

With total donations of US$74.6bn, Bill Gates & Melinda French Gates come in second in the ranking. Their total philanthropic value is the sum of the current endowment of the value of the foundation at US$49.8bn together with their cumulative donations of US$24.8bn. The couple established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2010 with a focus on public health, education and climate change, the same year that they created with Warren Buffett the ‘Giving Pledge’, a movement encouraging billionaires to donate the majority of their wealth to charity. As of 2021, there are 220 pledgers from 25 countries. Despite the recent announcement of their divorce, the couple will remain co-chairs and trustees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with ‘no changes’ to their roles or the organization. 

Hoogewerf believes billionaires like Elon Musk could give more

With donations totaling US$56.7bn, Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) of the UK is in 3rd spot. Wellcome, who made his initial wealth in pharmaceuticals in the late 1800s set up the Wellcome Trust on his death in 1936, to support health care causes. In 1995, the Wellcome Trust sold Wellcome Plc to GlaxoSmithKline and became a financially independent trust. Donations are the sum of the current endowment value of Wellcome Trust (US$38.4bn) and cumulative donations to date of US$18.3bn.

Film tycoon Howard Hughes (1905-1976) took 4th spot. Hughes established the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in1953 to support biomedical research. In 1985, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute sold the Hughes Aircraft Company for US$5.2bn, becoming the richest single philanthropic endowment surpassing Ford Foundation. Donations are the current endowment value of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (US$21.2bn) together with cumulative donations of US$17.4bn.

With personal donations of US$37.4bn, Warren Buffett at fifth place, popularly known as the ‘The Oracle of Omaha’, is the only individual without a significant philanthropic foundation to feature in the top 10 of the list. Buffett gifted the bulk of his Berkshire Hathaway shares to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation and non-profits founded by his children. Buffett has given away more than US$37bn as part of his yearly commitments and intends to donate his remaining shares within 12 years.

For the full list, click here.