Harvard University. Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/shutterstock

Imagine you could go back a year and a half, to the summer of 2020, and ask someone in the sector what they expected the nation’s biggest donors would support in 2021. Only the cynics, I think, would say, “pretty much the same stuff they gave to in 2019.” And yet, judging from the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual Philanthropy 50 list, the cynics would be right.

As Maria Di Mento and Ben Gose sum up in their companion account to the list, almost 86% of the funding committed by the 50 mega-givers, “some $23.8 billion—went to a relatively narrow slice of the charitable sector: colleges and universities, hospitals, foundations and donor-advised funds.” Later in the same piece, Benjamin Soskis of the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy put it more simply: “‘Eds and meds’ continue to dominate.”

These biggest donors’ prompt return to the old normal, after muted revisions to that playbook in 2020, does nothing if not fly in the face of breathless accounts telling us of a newly dominant “woke” philanthropy, hell-bent on remaking American society and tearing down Democrats’ chances of reelection along the way.

The reality—a clear preference for “eds and meds,” as well as padding their own foundations and DAFs—speaks to the fact that whatever else they might be, America’s leading philanthropists are not activists. Even in the face of multiple overlapping crises, as well as monumental gains to their own wealth, most of these donors gave to traditional causes.

That’s notable not only because it contradicts those who expected the past two years to transform philanthropic giving, but also because billionaire donors are looming ever larger these days, both in the nonprofit sector and in the public consciousness. In a new Gilded Age, how these super-citizens allocate their prodigious fortunes has a major cultural resonance. This big-donor rebuttal to the all-in, earnestly progressive posture that seemed to take hold in mid- to late 2020 undoubtedly puts a damper on nonprofits’ movement in that direction.

Even the exceptions may prove the rule. Jack Dorsey, of Twitter and Block (formerly Square), is the lone list member whose top cause the Chronicle classifies as “social justice.” Dorsey also stood out in 2020 as one of the only mega-donors who poured a significant chunk of their net worth into pandemic relief. And yet, as we’ve discussed, the billionaire’s conveniently trackable actual giving to nonprofits dwindled in 2021 to roughly one-third of its 2020 total. (the Chronicle’s 2021 figure of roughly $765 million accounts for money moved to his DAFs; actual nonprofit funding via Start Small totaled about $100 million last year.)

MacKenzie Scott, also very much a “social justice” giver, likely should be on the list but doesn’t appear because her representatives declined to provide any information to the Chronicle. She has hinted at greater transparency down the road, but as of right now, Scott’s giving remains opaque next to the more transparent approach of Dorsey, for example. While some of her giving does support activists, the intensely private philanthropist isn’t acting like she’s on a crusade to remake the sector in an image she prefers. Very much the opposite: She’s sought to deflect attention.

I’ll also note that Charles Koch, also on the list, has a history of supporting “activist” nonprofits on the other side of the aisle, but is now taking pains to cast his giving in a less provocative, more centrist light.

Having said all that, mega-donors’ continued preference for the traditional doesn’t mean nothing’s changing. Among donors of more modest means, “activist” giving for progressive causes has risen over the past several years—dating back to 2016, really—and the tone of conversation and messaging across the philanthrosphere continues to bear the imprint of summer 2020.

Former Democracy Alliance and Atlantic Philanthropies head Gara LaMarche also made the argument in a recent HistPhil contribution that a rise in general support from funders may give the impression that philanthropy is moving left, when in fact, it’s more often the grantees doing so. “So my impression is… it’s not foundations pulling their grantees left, but in a sense, being pulled left, or being associated with certain left stances, by the work of some of their grantees [to whom they’ve given general support],” he wrote.

Note that LaMarche is talking about foundations. With a few exceptions, the nation’s biggest donors haven’t been a part of that trend, either. Those foundations that have are mostly the same ones that backed progressive causes before the pandemic—smaller lefty foundations, for the most part, and a few larger ones like Ford.

The Chronicle’s list shows that donors like George Soros, and now Scott and Dorsey, are exceptions to the rule. And it’s doubtful whether middle-aged progressive givers like Scott and Dorsey represent a leftward generational shift in big-donor attitudes. Most of the younger mega-donors on the Chronicle’s list and elsewhere aren’t really pushing boundaries or embracing an “activist” stance.

At the head of that millennial pack are Zuckerberg and Chan, whose giving we might label “mainstream corporate Democratic” if we were to give it a political profile. Further down the list, we have people like the 38-year-old Jared Isaacman, a spacefaring philanthropic protege of Musk and Bezos whose gifts to places like St. Jude and the National Naval Aviation Museum fall well within the “eds and meds” spectrum. Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Austin Russell seems poised to be a major local donor with his $70 million gift to the Central Florida Foundation—hardly the stuff of revolution.

I also wrote about several of these youthful billionaires last week, including Isaacman. With the exception of some overtures toward opposing anti-AAPI hate, little of their emergent giving seems particularly progressive. If anything, younger mega-donors appear to be following their Gen X and baby boomer predecessors down the traditional path.

That could always change, but as Megan Ming Francis of the University of Washington put it in the Chronicle’s write-up, “[Big donors] don’t want to fall too far out of step with public opinion.” In other words, if big donors ever do get serious about confronting the problems of our time, they won’t necessarily get there ahead of the rest of us.