When Centre College in Kentucky declared in July that it had received a $250 million donation from its former trustee chair, Houston entrepreneur Robert Brockman, via a trust created by his father, it garnered national headlines. As one of the largest-ever gifts to higher education, it would almost double the tiny school’s endowment. A related announcement in September was less heralded: The gift, made in stock, as part of a recapitalization that never happened, had been withdrawn.
Centre College’s example, while extreme, isn’t unusual. Philanthropists who make pledges during boom times sometimes renege when markets tank; others pull back based on preconditions such as milestones or matches. The large majority of donors deliver on their word, but many a high-profile, big-money promise dribbles in over time frames that can exceed a decade. And while the rich and famous often give generously to their foundations, those foundations need deploy only 5% of the total each year, shrinking the effect.
In order to separate words and actual deeds, FORBES, in partnership with the Philanthropic Research Institute, decided to rank which Americans gave the most in the last calendar year–not money pledged but actual cash deployed in the field. “Givers now want to see an impact while they’re still alive,” says PRI founder R.J. Shook, a former Wall Street entrepreneur. The Philanthropic 50 was winnowed from a short list of 1,620 people, most of whom showed up in PRI’s proprietary database that denoted the 50,000-plus largest individual donations to recipients for 2012.
Forty of the Philanthropic 50 are also on the Forbes Billionaires list, led by those at the very top: Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the founders of the Giving Pledge, who took the top two spots. Each put almost $2 billion toward philanthropic work in 2012–the year’s only ten-digit givers–with Gates edging Buffett by a mere $35 million. While it doesn’t count in our rankings, our list also attempts to estimate lifetime giving, with the Gateses and Buffett both giving away at least $25 billion apiece through the end of last year.
That latter number for Buffett will grow rapidly. He has committed that his entire Berkshire Hathaway BRK.A +% holding, north of $58 billion, will be donated before or at his death, with a further mandate that it will be put to use within ten years of the latter. Add in his selfless giving model–he outsources to the Gates Foundation, his name on nary a building or endowment–and Omaha’s Oracle proved an easy choice for the inaugural Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy, presented to him by Bono at a dinner at the Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy in June.