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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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Kymberly Wolff, chief fundraiser at Habitat for Humanity International, says groups like hers can win huge donations. Well-heeled benefactors often say the university they attended changed their lives; the key, she says, is showing donors how their money can influence another person’s life as deeply. Habitat, which succeeded in winning a $100 million pledge three years ago, tries to accomplish this by inviting would-be donors on home-building projects, where they hammer shingles and lay bricks alongside the low-income families who will live in those homes.

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Fundraisers’ influence

Fundraisers and philanthropy gurus warn, however, that the goal should be more total giving, not redistribution of the gifts currently being made.

“I hate to see this get pitted as an either/or discussion,” says Albert R. Checcio, senior vice president for advancement at the University of Southern California, which won two gifts of more than $100 million last year from Philanthropy 50 donors toward a $6-billion campaign. “There are so many worthy organizations.”

Mr. Checcio also notes that even a fleet of the world’s best fundraisers can’t convince donors to support projects they don’t care about: “Donors give to what they’re interested in, period.”

And yet savvy charity leaders and smart fundraisers do wield influence. Take Mr. Malone’s route to becoming a Yale donor whose support thus far has totaled $80 million.

“The first time Yale hit me up for a contribution, I scratched my head and said, 'Yale’s got plenty of money,’ ” recalls Mr. Malone, a graduate of the college. That was in the mid-1990s, and Yale’s president, Richard C. Levin, had visited Mr. Malone to ask for money to make its business school first class.

The proposal fell on the wrong set of ears. Mr. Malone, a libertarian and free-market supporter, says he told the university chief: “How can you have a business school if you don’t believe in capitalism?”

The next time Mr. Levin visited, he asked for financial support of an engineering school. An engineering major who believes that people with technical skills create businesses and jobs, Mr. Malone was intrigued. Talks with a fundraiser convinced him that Yale would use his gift wisely: The institution didn’t have unrealistic ideas about becoming “another MIT,” says Mr. Malone. And it had a plan to integrate engineering and medical disciplines.

Of course, Mr. Levin and Yale were tapping into the right giving vein with Mr. Malone, not trying to create a whole new one.

Donors, says Mr. Malone, “will do what’s in their enlightened self-interest and in their heart.”

• Caroline Bermudez contributed to this article.

This article was originally published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

• To see The Chronicle's package of stories about its Philanthropy 50 research, click here.

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