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As tensions over wealth gap rise, the rich are giving more

The top 50 charitable donors gave more in 2011: Are the super rich feeling the sting of public opinion?

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It’s not that wealthy people don’t write checks to such charities. They do, according to Chronicle data and interviews with donors. They just reserve their $25 million, and even their $5 million, gifts for other types of institutions.

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That’s in part because many philanthropists don’t see human-service organizations as the best way to alleviate America’s problems. And that’s not likely to change even in light of the country’s lingering economic troubles.

For example, Eli Broad (No. 49), the real-estate mogul, says he has “some sympathy” for the Occupy Wall Street protestors. But their message about inequality supports his diagnosis of what ails America: a poor education system. Mr. Broad, who has been backing efforts to change public schools since the late 1990s, says he thinks the downturn will produce more education donors.

A 'virtuous cycle’

Also at play may be the fact that fundraising success tends to breed fundraising success. Since 2007, eight nonprofits have won at least four gifts apiece of $10-million or more from multiple donors in The Chronicle’s top 50 rankings. All eight are universities and university medical centers. Half are Ivy League institutions.

Ms. Berman says groups like those are benefiting from a “virtuous cycle” of big giving. Other, smaller, organizations are stuck in a “vicious cycle”: Many donors don’t want to be the first to make a whopper of a gift to an untested charity.

Mr. Broad says that social-service groups and those that aren’t winning big gifts “have to make a better case for the needs than they have to date.”

Big donors are turning to universities for projects to advance research on clean energy, like Thomas F. Steyer and Kathryn A. Taylor (tied for No. 33), who pledged $25 million to Yale, or to spur business development in poor countries, like Robert E. and Dorothy J. King (No. 8), who gave $154.5 million to Stanford.

Other charities don’t necessarily craft such ambitious appeals, say donors and nonprofit officials. And donors who want to leave a legacy worry that the newer nonprofits, unlike four-century-old Harvard, might not be around in 25 or 100 years.

But more groups are trying to get into the big-giving game. Bob Carter, a fundraising consultant in Sarasota, Fla., says charities that have long relied mostly on mailings for money are doing more to seek big gifts. He is helping nonprofits like United Way Worldwide and World Vision shape strategies that will appeal to multimillionaires and billionaires.

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