The world can change in a heartbeat, as we’ve all come to find out. And the philanthropic world is no exception. When top donors pass away, their children often step into their shoes to continue or expand their giving.
We’ve reported previously on the generational passing of the torch and how a historic wealth transfer is impacting family foundations and the philanthropic sphere in general. But what about the billionaire class? Today, the richest 400 Americans have three times as much wealth as all U.S. private foundations put together. While some of these billionaires are aiming to give away as much as they can while they’re living, most will leave behind vast fortunes and/or big foundations when they die—assets that will be largely controlled by their heirs.
But it’s not just in some distant future that today’s heirs will wield influence. The children of some of America’s richest people are already top givers themselves or have moved into leadership positions within leading family foundations.
This transition is happening at a time when billionaires—and their philanthropy—are coming under fire like never before. By and large, though, most critics have paid little attention to the way that today’s super-wealthy are set to extend their influence far into the future by empowering their children and grandchildren to give away vast sums of money for many decades to come. While philanthropic aristocracy is nothing new—think of how Rockefeller heirs have long wielded influence through various giving vehicles—the scale of what is emerging is unprecedented as numerous heirs move into position to control an array of huge fortunes built up during a second Gilded Age.
Who are these new power players in philanthropy? What do they believe? Which causes are they embracing? And how is their giving likely to unfold in coming decades?
This group defies pat generalizations. Just as billionaires themselves approach philanthropy in a range of ways, their children are also embracing a diversity of approaches and causes. Some of the heirs to America’s largest fortunes have already established clear patterns of giving through foundations they’ve been running for years. Others are just getting started in their philanthropy and it can be hard to know where they’ll eventually go as top donors.
Here, we take a look at 15 heirs to some of America’s largest fortunes.
Susie, Peter, and Howard Buffett
For all the money Warren Buffett has given away so far, there’s still plenty left—around $77 billion, as of this writing. And while the majority of that is pledged to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the foundations run by his three kids are also in line to receive many billions, on top of the annual gifts of Berkshire Hathaway stock those institutions have been getting since 2006.
Susie, the eldest child, is the most important figure in this story. She is chair of the Sherwood Foundation, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. Together, those entities made over $800 million in grants in 2018.
As we’ve reported, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (named for Warren’s late wife) is a powerhouse funder of reproductive rights and abortion access, both domestically and internationally. In fact, STBF is the largest private funder in this area in the world, and as its chair, Susie sits at the forefront of one of the most hotly contested social issues around. Not surprisingly, she keeps a very low profile.
Susie’s other big passion is improving life in Omaha through the Sherwood Foundation, which provides grants in public education, human services and social justice, with a special interest in promoting the welfare of children from low-income families. It gave away $207 million in 2018—making it one of the largest locally focused grantmakers in the U.S.
Peter and Howard, meanwhile, have been plenty busy themselves as philanthropists. The NoVo Foundation, which Peter runs with his wife Jennifer, has been a leading funder of women’s empowerment in recent years. It’s reportedly planning to make a total of $270 million in grants in 2020. (We reported earlier this year on NoVo’s recent shift in direction to focus more on building local economies—a move that roiled the gender equity world.)
As for Howard, he’s been working for years to promote global development and greater security in Africa and Latin America. As we reported in May, the latest move of his eponymous foundation—which gave away $154 million in 2018—is to invest $200 million in a trouble region of Colombia that remains a war zone.
Together, Warren Buffett’s three children oversee grantmaking that has totaled over $1.2 billion annually in recent years.
Nat, Liz, and Audrey Simons
Jim Simons is one of the most successful hedge funders of all time, with a net worth that Forbes currently pegs at $23 billion. Simons and his wife Marilyn are top philanthropists, as we’ve often reported, running a foundation that invested $483 million in basic science research last year.
But in a striking parallel to the Buffett family, Jim Simons’ three children all have their own foundations and, in coming years, each is likely to play a role in giving away one of Wall Street’s biggest fortunes.
The Simons kids keep a pretty low profile, but Nat is the best known of the three. Sea Change Foundation, which he’s launched with his wife Laura Baxter-Simons in 2006, has long been a major player funding climate change work. By 2018, the foundation had given over $500 million, making the organization one of the largest climate and clean energy funders around. As we’ve reported, Nat and Laura have committed to donating between $50-$75 million per year toward climate mitigation and clean energy work for the foreseeable future, which means the 50-something couple will remain key players in this funding space for many years—possibly even decades—to come.
Liz Simons has also been positioning herself for a long future as a top philanthropist, working with her husband Mark Heising. Their Heising-Simons Foundation has been scaling fast, as we’ve often reported, and made more than $100 million in grants last year—funding that went to support a diverse portfolio that includes education, climate change, human rights, and basic science research.
And let’s not forget about Audrey Simons, who is the youngest and most progressive of Jim Simons’ children. Her Foundation for a Just Society has also been growing rapidly, embracing a bottom-up approach to promoting gender and racial justice. It made $35 million in grants in 2018.
Two of George Soros’s five children sit on the global board of the Open Society Foundations, one of the world’s largest philanthropies, and several are known for their active giving. But the Soros heir we’re watching most closely right now is Alexander Soros, the youngest of George’s children, who serves as OSF’s board’s deputy chair and has been steadily raising his profile in recent years as both a philanthropist and political donor.
Alex graduated from New York University in 2009 with a B.A. in history, and received his Ph.D. in 2018 from the University of California, Berkeley. Like his father, he is keenly focused on promoting human rights and social justice, both in the United States and abroad. In 2012, he established the Alexander Soros Foundation, an under-the-radar organization that doesn’t promote itself or even maintain a website. According to data from the Foundation Center, the organization made $5 million in grants from 2012 to 2017. One of the few public actions the foundation takes is to give an annual award to “activists working at the nexus of environmentalism and human rights.”
According to tax filings, past grantees of the Alexander Soros Foundation include Seeds of Africa, a nonprofit with a focus on education and community development in Ethiopia, Global Witness Limited, an “international NGO established in 1993 that works to break the links between natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses worldwide,” as well as Equal Justice Initiative, the Rainforest Foundation, and Libraries Without Borders, where Soros has sat on the board. Soros has also made six-figure grants to immigrant-focused organizations such as Make the Road New York and Mujeres Unidas Y Activas, as well as organizations that advocate for women, including FAIR Girls and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
The 35-year-old Soros is also the founding chair of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, a movement of thousands of progressive Jews across the country working to combat the rise in white nationalism and to support social justice. In addition, Soros sits on the boards of Central European University, and Global Witness.
In its annual Philanthropy Awards, Inside Philanthropy named Alexander the ‘Most Intriguing Heir’ of 2019. Forbes estimates his 90-year-old father’s net worth to be $8.3 billion—the money he has left over after giving away $15 billion since the late 1970s and then, a few years ago, transferring the bulk of his fortune to the foundation. While it’s unknown how much wealth Alex and his siblings will ultimately inherit, or come to control through their own individual foundations, what we do know is that Alex has come to play an increasingly prominent role within OSF.
As IP has previously reported, the current moment is a precarious one for the “House of Soros” and OSF. The famously-decentralized foundation’s governance structure has become more streamlined, thanks to former president Chris Stone and current leader Patrick Gaspard. The fear of some long-time Soros observers, however, is that the far-flung Soros philanthropic empire could fracture when the day comes that George is no longer around to serve as its glue. While OSF has a professional board and is not a family foundation, it’s likely that Alex and the other Soros heirs will have influence in shaping the future of one of the most impressive philanthropic enterprises in history.
Emma & Georgina Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg has given away billions of dollars in recent years. But with net worth currently estimated at $58.6 billion, it’s highly unlikely that the 78-year old former mayor of New York and Giving Pledge member will be able to dispose of the bulk of his fortune while he is still alive. As a result, his two daughters —Emma and Georgina—are likely to play an important role in coming decades in giving away one of America’s largest fortunes.
Both Bloomberg daughters sit on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, yet Emma has been the more active one when it comes to philanthropy and public policy. The 40-year has an MBA from Harvard Business School, an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School (which she earned jointly), and a degree from Princeton. She spent nearly three years working for the New York City government, and nearly seven years working for the Robin Hood Foundation, the NYC-based anti-poverty group, where she served as chief of staff.
Emma’s primary passion is education. She serves on the board of Leadership for Educational Equity, a group with close links to Teach for America, as well as KIPP Schools. In 2014, she launched Murmuration, an organization that says it provides “sophisticated data and analytics, proprietary technology, strategic guidance, and programmatic support to help our partners build political power and marshal support so necessary changes are made to improve our public schools.”
Emma’s younger sister, Georgina, is less active in the world of philanthropy, but still involved. An avid equestrian, who has competed professionally and won numerous awards, Georgina founded the Rider’s Closet, which collects new used riding clothing and boots, and distributes them to riding programs, pony clubs, and individuals in need. She also serves on the board of the Hampton Classic Horse Show and the U.S. Equestrian Team, and is vice president at Animal Aid USA. In 2016, the Humane Society awarded Georgina the Compassion in Action Award, "for her tireless work to protect all animals."
For decades, the Koch family name has been synonymous with the political and philanthropic giving of Charles and David Koch, whose investments in libertarian causes and conservative candidates worked to move the Republican Party—and the country—to the right. But David died last year and Charles Koch is now 84. What does the future hold for a family fortune valued at $90 billion? Will right-wing Koch philanthropy extend into perpetuity via massive endowment gifts? Or will family giving evolve over time under the direction of the next generation of Kochs?
The answers to these questions are likely to be shaped in part by Chase Koch, who was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1977. He is the son of Charles and Liz Koch, and he and his sister Elizabeth are heirs to an estimated $44 billion fortune. The elder Koch tutored his two children every Sunday about values, philosophy, and libertarian economics—an experience that bred a passion for education in the young Chase.
After graduating from Texas A&M with a B.S. in marketing, Chase returned to Wichita where he worked for Koch Industries in various high-level capacities. In 2018, Chase became president of Koch Disruptive Technologies, the company’s VC outfit.
Although Chase seems to be following his father’s career trajectory very closely, he is forging his own path when it comes to philanthropy. The younger Koch seeks to avoid partisanship and the “hard-charging political gamesmanship” which his father is known for. Chase favors collaboration over confrontation and views himself as a bridge-builder, rather than a bomb-thrower. One example is his 2015 initiative to combat poverty by instructing nonprofits in the principles that helped Koch Industries succeed.
Chase has been closely involved in building up Stand Together, the Koch-funded anti-poverty organization that’s IP has reported on in the past. He has also lent his support to Urban Specialists, a nonprofit which confronts the pressing issues of urban violence and police shootings. In addition, he has worked with the likes of progressive activist Van Jones on criminal justice reform.
Chase serves on the board of the Charles Koch Foundation, which has been steadily ramping up its giving in recent years. As IP has reported, the foundation is best known for its extensive support of libertarian research in higher education institutions, but has expanded its giving in recent years to provide extensive support for criminal justice reform and policy work that challenges established orthodoxies on U.S. national security policy. Chase and his wife Annie have also launched their own foundation, which funds a private preschool and grade school on the Wichita State University campus called Wonder. For more on Chase and Annie Koch, visit their profile page, here.
Lukas & Carrie Walton-Penner
For many years, Walton family philanthropy was dominated by Sam Walton’s four children, who built the Walton Family Foundation into an influential backer of charter schools and education reform work, as well as investing heavily in the Northwest Arkansas, where Walmart stores were first established.
Sam’s surviving three children still are hugely important philanthropic players and we report especially often on Alice Walton, who has emerged a key backer of the arts. But Walton family philanthropy has been evolving steadily for years, as a new generation comes to the fore and moves to shift and diversify giving priorities.
The two NextGen Walton heirs we watch most closely are Lukas Walton and Carrie Walton-Penner. Lukas is the only child of John T. and Christy Walton. After growing up in California and Wyoming, Lukas attended Colorado College, where he graduated in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in environmentally sustainable business. He also studied energy efficiency and hydrological/geothermal energy in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Lukas serves as the Chair of the Environment Program Committee at the Walton Family Foundation. He is also active in cleantech funds in the agriculture, energy and aquaculture sectors. He credits his parents for instilling in him the passion to understand how industry can help foundations and nonprofits achieve their environmental goals. The Walton Foundation made $90 million in grants to the environment in 2019, comprising about 15 percent of its total grantmaking for the year.
As IP has reported, the Walton Foundation has quietly become one of the largest grantmakers in the environmental space, emerging as a top supporter of conservation groups over the past decade. The foundation is also the primary backer of efforts to preserve the Colorado River. Meanwhile, it’s giving for K-12 education—which has drawn intense criticism over the years—has continued at full throttle—with more than $200 million grants going to this area in 2019.
In 2005, Lukas’ father, John, died while piloting a homemade aircraft. One-third of John’s fortune went to Lukas, which means the 34-year old is worth an estimated $17 billion, according to Forbes. Lukas is reported to have donated in excess of $150 million of his own fortune to the family foundation, and it’s likely that much more will be distributed over the coming years.
Lukas’ cousin, Carrie Walton-Penner, is the daughter of former Walmart chairman S. Robson Walton. The 49-year old Carrie is heir to her father’s $65 billion fortune, so she has plenty of resources to commit to her passion of education, specifically charter school funding and support.
After studying economics and history at Georgetown, Carrie earned a master’s degree in Education Policy and Program Evaluation from Stanford. She then served as education program officer for her family’s foundation, and as an evaluator for the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. She also worked at the Rockefeller Foundation, Aaron Diamond Foundation, and Academy for Educational Development.
Carrie claims that her passion for educational equity was sparked at Georgetown, where she witnessed the lack of quality education available to students in public high schools, while tutoring disadvantaged students in Washington, D.C. Since then, her focus has been on improving access to high-quality schools for every child, particularly those in low-income communities.
Carrie recently finished a stint as chair of the board of directors of the Walton Family Foundation, and serves on the board of KIPP Foundation, Alliance for School Choice, EdVoice, the Aspen Institute and Charter School Growth Fund.
Both Lukas and Carrie maintain very low profiles. Neither is active online and little has been written about them thus far. But with their respective wealth and active participation in philanthropy, they are certainly worth keeping an eye on.
The founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s biggest hedge fund, Ray Dalio has an estimated net worth of $17 billion, according to Forbes. He and his wife Barbara have been steadily ramping up family giving in the past few years, with commitments totaling $5 billion so far. And since the couple is part of the Giving Pledge, much greater philanthropy lies ahead over coming decades. Ray and Barbara have four sons, at least two of whom are involved in the philanthropic space to varying degrees—most notably, Matt Dalio.
By the time Matt graduated from Harvard in 2006, he was already an active global philanthropist. At the age of 16, he founded China Care Foundation, an organization that helps orphaned Chinese children with special needs. Matt spent a year of his childhood attending school in Beijing, and wanted to give back to the community he had grown to love. China Care has since raised over $14 million to provide 1,200 special needs children with various medical procedures, as well as nearly 300 financial aid grants and 600 foster placements. China Care also supports over 60 high school and college clubs where thousands of students run community service programs, fundraise, and volunteer at the China Care medical home in Beijing.
Matt’s work in China led him to be named one of Teen People’s “20 Teens Who Will Change the World,” and he became the youngest recipient of the Fulbright Award for furthering peace and international understanding. Oprah Winfrey even honored Matt as one of the “People Changing the Lives of Children Around the World.” To date, Dalio Philanthropies and the Beijing Dalio Foundation have awarded grants totaling over $90 million to support various programs in China.
Post-college, Matt worked for Harbor Point, one of the east coast’s largest urban renewal projects to revitalize the waterfront of Stamford, Connecticut. He also holds positions on the boards of both China Care Foundation and OneSky Foundation, an organization that builds and manages early learning centers in Southeast Asia and globally.
Matt’s latest venture is the founding of Endless OS, an organization dedicated to building a global platform for digital literacy. As we’ve reported, education is a big focus of Dalio family philanthropy, an area where Barbara has taken the lead. We wrote about her immersive approach to education philanthropy here.
While the 36-year old Matt doesn’t have much in the way of media coverage yet, you can learn more about his billionaire parents here.
George Kaiser is the epitome of what IP editor David Callahan refers to in his book “The Givers” as a Super-Citizen—an ultra-wealth individual who give back to their community in ways that local government can’t or won’t.
Kaiser has long supported early childhood education and anti-poverty efforts in his native Tulsa by making impressive grants through his George Kaiser Family Foundation and also pumping a vast fortune into the Tulsa Community Foundation, expanding it to become one of the largest such grantmakers in the United States. Kaiser has given many millions to expand Educare, a program which provides early education opportunities to children, and provides skills and training to both teachers and parents. GKFF has also gifted large sums to the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa’s campus to create the School of Community Medicine, and $365 million to create Gathering Place public park, a 100-acre greenery that attracts over one million visitors each year.
Kaiser has three children: Philip, Emily and Leah. Leah is the most active in the philanthropic space, serving on GKFF’s board and working as a consultant in the nonprofit sector, with a focus on arts and culture. After graduating Harvard, she spent five years working for the development staff at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and currently serves on the board of DanceWorks Chicago, an organization that provides artistic development opportunities to early-stage professional dancers and choreographers.
GKFF has been creative in its approach to grantmaking, unafraid to source innovative strategies for supporting Tulsa. The foundation’s Tulsa Remote initiative is a prime example. GKFF has been offering remote workers $10,000, plus a host of discounts and freebies, to move to Tulsa for one year. The idea is that upwardly-mobile folks will move to Tulsa, fall in love with the place, and want to make the city their permanent home.
As with most heirs on this list, Leah’s father signed the Giving Pledge. Given her passion for arts and culture, and GKFF’s willingness to think outside the box, we expect future grantmaking—from both Leah and GKFF—to include this area.
With a net worth of around $15 billion according to Forbes, Eric Schmidt has long been a major philanthropist, along with his wife Wendy. Meanwhile, their only surviving daughter, Sophie, is already cementing herself at the nexus of media and philanthropy.
Sophie is reportedly in the process of founding a nonprofit publication that will cover “the surprising and complex effects of technology outside the US and Europe.” Sophie studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and received an MBA from Stanford Business School. Her global work experience includes times spent as a public policy and communications manager in Uber’s London office, as well as stints at an Afghan media company in Dubai, a Google-funded tech incubator in South Africa, and Chinese mobile giant Xiaomi in Beijing.
Sophie also serves as vice president of the Schmidt Family Foundation. Established in 2006, the Palo Alto-based foundation’s mission is “to advance the wiser use of energy and natural resources and to support efforts worldwide that empower communities to build resilient systems for food, water, and human resources.” The foundation’s giving priorities fall under three key categories: Renewable Energy and Climate, Human Rights, and Ecological Agriculture. We reported recently on the foundation’s activist environmental arm, the 11th Hour Project.
In November 2019, Eric and Wendy Schmidt announced a “$1 billion philanthropic commitment to identify and support talent across disciplines and around the world to serve others and help address the world’s most pressing problems.”
Clearly, the 11th Hour Project and other forms of environmental giving will continue to be a cornerstone of the Schmidt Family Foundation’s giving. Since Eric and Wendy are still in their 60s, they likely have plenty of years left to help direct their family’s foundation and legacy. But Sophie has already begun to make her mark and is certainly worth paying attention to as she continues her philanthropic journey.
For more on Eric and Wendy Schmidt, visit their profile page, here.