Research on philanthropy was conducted by Joshua Graff Zivin, an economist studying innovation and Director of the Center on Global Transformation at UCSD and by Giovanni Paternostro, from SBP Medical Discovery Institute. This research also included interviews with philanthropists and their advisors.
Individual philanthropists express a strong willingness to take risks and a desire to be catalytic in their investments and many also wish to contribute their entrepreneurial skills. Especially notable is the increased interest in philanthropy of wealthy individuals, exemplified by the increasing number of billionaires joining the Giving Pledge (givingpledge.org).
These philanthropists (241 at present) have committed to donate the majority of their wealth, yet a report of the Institute for Policy Studies (Collins et al, 2020) found that the total wealth of most of the Pledgers had increased since the pledges inception.
While some of this is a byproduct of the high returns that these individuals earned on their assets, it also reflects a shortage of potentially transformative projects sought by these philanthropists.
Most Pledgers wrote letters explaining their priorities and motivation:
An analysis and graphical summary describing Pledgers can be found here:
This analysis shows that Health is one of the top giving priorities of Pledgers and estimates their combined net worth to be more than $1 trillion.
As a comparison, the NIH invests about $41.7 billion annually in medical research
Further in-depth analysis of major philanthropists has been presented by David Callahan in a book (Callahan D., 2017) and in the news website he founded (www.insidephilanthropy.com). He was also interviewed for this research.
The majority of philanthropists are self-made, have developed key innovations in their fields and are skeptical of following prevailing wisdom. Many have made their fortunes in technology companies, developing platforms that create networks of connections between individuals and between companies (Parker et al, 2016).
Additionally, the number of very wealthy individuals is much larger than the group that has joined the Giving Pledge and is growing rapidly (Wealth-X, 2022). Many of these may wish to use their wealth to make a large positive difference but are not yet sure if philanthropy is the best way.
Several well-known biomedical scientists have lamented the consequences of the current severe imbalance between the dollars available for biomedical research and the large number of scientists writing grants (Alberts et al, 2014). They observed that hypercompetition for resources suppresses the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries. They suggest that biomedical scientists are spending far too much of their time writing and revising frequently unsuccessful grant applications and far too little thinking about science and conducting experiments. This discouraging picture, which many agree is accurate, provides a strong motivation to explore novel scientific and collaborative approaches that would free the unused philanthropic resources we have described.
We have received feedback from the senior advisor of a philanthropic family that has already donated several hundred million dollars to biomedical research. This advisor stressed the importance of making many different ideas visible in scientific discussions. He mentioned the “need to keep frontiers and freedom open so that people can explore in opposite directions to the “herd” or consensus opinions” and encouraged “to present a spectrum of ideas … seeing the full spectrum is often very informative by itself”.
Alberts, B., Kirschner, M.W., Tilghman, S. and Varmus, H. Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(16), pp.5773-5777, 2014.
Callahan, D. The givers: Wealth, power, and philanthropy in a new gilded age. Vintage, 2017.
Collins, C., Flannery, H., Ocampo, O., Thomhave, K., The Giving Pledge at 10: A Case Study in Top Heavy Philanthropy. 2020.
Parker GG, Van Alstyne MW, and Choudary SP. Platform revolution: How networked markets are transforming the economy and how to make them work for you. WW Norton & Company; 2016.
Wealth-X. Ultra High Net Worth Philanthropy 2022.