The beginning of the third millennium, with its ongoing human population growth, has presented the issue of poverty and economic inequality from a new perspective. The pandemics that followed forced us to rethink our vision of healthcare. 

The wealthiest people of the time – philanthropists and benefactors – have also become concerned with solving the urgent problems facing humanity. By organizing scientific and philanthropic foundations worldwide, they not only influence the elimination of contemporary local challenges but also contribute to the civilization’s progress as a whole. This article is dedicated to the richest people on the planet and their sense of social responsibility to the world in which they have succeeded. 

The social phenomenon of philanthropy and charity

Philanthropy is a complex socio-cultural phenomenon aimed at financial support of cultural, research, and social projects. Altruism, along with a belief in a person’s creativity and genius, is among the origins that stimulate the development of philanthropic activity in many respects. In other words, a philanthropist donates to poor scholars not because they have no money but because they are geniuses in a specific field. The patron’s material incentives emphasize the person’s contribution to the development of culture, science, or arts. 

On the other hand, an important component of grant funding is philanthropy, the most significant aspects of which include: 

  • Identification of problem areas (or groups of people) that need help, development, or additional funding.
  • Completely gratuitous nature of funding: the patron does not seek financial gain from their donation but is only guided by moral, ethical, and humanistic principles.

A distinction is made between strategic and situational charity. The first one aims to solve global problems society faces in the long term. This includes the development of educational and healthcare systems or support of social initiatives and projects aimed at reducing poverty and inequality. As a rule, a number of strategic tasks are financed not by individuals but by legal entities, such as organizations, foundations, and volunteer communities. 

Situational charity is limited to solving problems “here and now.” Such activities can include funding measures to eliminate the consequences of natural disasters, financial aid to economically vulnerable groups, humanitarian aid to victims of local military conflicts, etc. Charitable activities are always guided by considerations of humanism and philanthropy (from the Greek “humanity”). The philanthropist donates solely on the basis of the fact of poverty and not to encourage merit or the contribution of people in need to society.

In addition to charity, pro bono funding (of both money and personal time) refers to the following types of activities:

Volunteering. Volunteer communities work pro bono for the welfare of others or to solve local problems (often human-made or anthropomorphic). Volunteering often includes environmental activities, fighting for climate preservation, defense of rare species of flora and fauna, and volunteering in hospices and nursing homes. 

Volunteers in Buras, Louisiana cleaned an oil-covered brown pelican.
Volunteers in Buras, La., cleaned an oil-covered brown pelican found off the Louisiana coast, among many affected by the oil spill.
Credit: Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse


Volunteers wash a pelican during an oil spill response in Louisiana.

  • Corporate. Corporate philanthropy is a type of philanthropic activity in which the donor is not an individual but a corporation. At the same time, the areas of allocation of charitable funds are not related to the corporation’s primary financial activities. Nowadays, the concept of social responsibility of business to society is more and more prevalent in global companies. Thanks to this, the number of new foundations and sponsor organizations that solve social problems increases yearly. 
  • Sponsorship. In many ways, sponsorship activities are guided not only by philanthropic but by commercial motives. However, they also significantly impact scientific, cultural, and social aspects of life. Nevertheless, sponsorship often implies caveats: by investing their funds in the project development, the sponsor will likely place certain obligations on its participants.

The most selfless: industry and education 

According to Hurun Research and the EdelGive Foundation, industrialist and philanthropist Jamsetji Nusrevani Tata (1839-1904) topped the list of the most generous benefactors of the past century. The Indian entrepreneur made his fortune in loom manufacturing, which contributed to the strengthening of his business and the development of the textile industry in India. The Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, once called Jamsetji Tata “a one-man planning commission.” 

image of the world's most generous people in the last 100 years
List of the most generous philanthropists of the century, according to an analysis by Hurun Research 
*The ranking is based on total donations (adjusted for inflation), including the value of gifts and other financial proceeds. Image: Hurun India


Tata was not only an avid technocrat but a prominent educator. In 1892, he founded the JN Tata Endowment, an educational foundation to promote higher education in India and worldwide. To date, about 66% of Tata’s charitable giving has come from his Tata Sons foundation (the capitalization of the foundation itself and its subsidiaries is estimated at $100 billion).

The other two philanthropists in scientific engineering research and education are Jim and Marilyn Simons. A professor of math sciences, Jim Simons, founded his foundation primarily to provide funding for the non-profit research organization Math of America. Every year, this organization facilitates the training of hundreds of highly skilled professionals in math and engineering. Between 2014 and 2018, the Simmons family donated $1.65 billion to its foundation. Jim Simmons is also involved in funding studies in biology and genetics. The man is also active with healthcare organizations. 

Medicine and climate issues

Second place on Hurun Research’s list of the most generous philanthropists of the past century belongs to former married couple Bill and Melinda Gates. Together, they donated $74.6 billion to charity. 

The creator of the Microsoft OS and his wife established their charitable foundation in 1994. Since then, the foundation has focused on climate and health issues at different times. Together with GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization), the Gates Foundation has participated in vaccination programs for children in India and Africa and has funded projects to prevent the spread of malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. 

Gavi organization vaccinating children
Vaccination of African Children Funded by GAVI

Since 2006, the billionaire and philanthropist Warren Buffett has been actively funding the Gates Foundation. In 2006, he decided to give more than 99% of all Berkshire Hathaway shares to charity, which was a major part of his assets at that time. On December 9, 2010, Warren, Bill, and Melinda Gates, along with 40 other philanthropists, took the Giving Pledge, pledging to contribute more than half of all their assets to charity. Today, 220 philanthropists from 25 countries are members of The Giving Pledge. Hurun Research estimates Warren Buffett’s contribution to charity at $37.4 billion. 

Billionaire and former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, also did not stand aside on climate change issues. In 2019, he launched Beyond Carbon. The initiative is actively fighting to close coal-fired power plants, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and stop the race to develop non-environmentally friendly gas fields. Michael Bloomberg, an active opponent of tobacco addiction, has raised more than $200 million in anti-smoking campaigns through his foundations, making him one of the most avid tobacco opponents in the US.

In recent years, the richest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos, has also become active in the field of charity. In February 2020, the man announced the foundation of the Jeff Bezos Earth Fund. The foundation’s primary task is to preserve the Earth’s ecosystem. It plans to achieve this through cooperation with governmental and non-governmental organizations on climate preservation, as well as the allocation of grants for conservation projects. Jeff Bezos was the first contributor to the fund, investing $10 billion. For 2021, the Bezos Foundation has given $3 billion in grant aid. The December grant round from the Jeff Bezos Earth Fund stopped at $443 million in projects to protect against drought, including cropland, and reduce environmental pollution among marginalized communities.

Fighting poverty and protecting human rights

The fight against poverty and social inequality is another field on which the world’s charities and foundations focus their efforts. 

Philanthropist Chuck Feeney, who parted with all his shares in the Duty-Free Shoppers chain in 1984 and founded the Atlantic Philanthropies Foundation, has excelled in this area. During its tenure, the foundation received $8 billion in funding. The money was used for projects to fight poverty and racial discrimination. Most of these funds were distributed through the Atlantic Philanthropies grants and scholarship system. 

The Omidyar Group Foundation, owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, is dedicated to alleviating poverty in Third World countries and facilitating humanitarian aid to refugees who have lost their homes due to military conflicts. Through programs initiated by the Omidyar Group, regions of Africa, Latin America, and India are given a unique opportunity to access higher education in the best educational establishments in the world. 

An important factor contributing to poverty and crime worldwide is the inadequacy of the judicial and legal systems. The elimination of shortcomings in the areas of the criminal code and the judiciary can have a positive impact on reducing the number of faulty court verdicts and protect social groups under investigation or those who have problems with the law.

The Laura and John Arnold Family of Human Rights Defenders (Laura and John Arnold Foundation) annually allocates funds to improve the criminal and judicial systems of the United States. The public safety assessment methodology developed through the Foundation’s programs is already operating in a number of states. The legal initiative assists judges with making bail verdicts based on a set of criteria for the social stability of the accused. Another evolving initiative of the foundation is a program to protect domestic and sexual violence victims, which primarily affects the world’s female population. 

graph of domestic violence rates in the 2020 coronavirus quarantine wave
Increase in domestic violence in the wake of the spring 2020 pandemic

Realizing their responsibility to the world, patrons and philanthropists every year influence the improvement of various spheres of life, investing their capital in social development funds and organizations to combat discrimination and poverty. 

Partnership programs, contests, and grants allocated by organizations and foundations to support scientific, cultural, and social programs continue to play an active role in shaping educational and scientific activities. We will discuss them in the next article devoted to philanthropists’ contributions to science and education.