10 Inspiring Acts of Philanthropy

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They say that it’s better to give than to receive, but setting aside a little extra for charitable donations can be tough, particularly in the midst of a historically unprecedented economic crisis. Still, there’s something to be said for those who make philanthropy a way of life, whether they’re blessed with a bank account stuffed with billions or whether they’re average Joes and Janes who eschew the latest gadgets and consumer goods in order to help those in need. Here are the inspiring stories of ten people whose charitable donations have made an impact.

10. Charles “Chuck” Feeney

American businessman and billionaire Charles “Chuck” Feeney became mind-bogglingly wealthy as one of the founding partners of the chain of duty-free shops whose discounted goods entice last-minute shoppers in airports and hotels around the world. Feeney is the antithesis of flashy movers and shakers like Ted Turner and Richard Branson — he lives simply, keeps a very low profile, and avoids most public appearances and media coverage. Still, by most estimates, Feeney ranks among the most generous of major philanthropists. Over the last several decades, he has given away nearly $5 billion to foundations, universities, hospitals, and non-profit groups around the globe. What’s even more impressive – and most unusual – is that Feeney typically goes out of his way to ensure that his gifts remain anonymous. For example, to avoid U.S. government disclosure rules, he incorporated his private foundation in Bermuda and claims no tax deductions for his charitable donations. Some observers say that in terms of charitable donations as a percentage of one’s overall net worth, Feeney may someday be recognized as the most altruistic philanthropist in American history.

9. Thomas Cannon

Virginia resident Thomas Cannon didn’t consider himself to be a religious man, but at the age of 47, he took on a charitable mission that he described to friends as a “one-man ministry.” The postal worker began distributing small grants, most totaling $1000, to foundations, nonprofit organizations, charity groups, and individuals whose work he admired or whose circumstances he wanted to help improve. Over the course of his lifetime, Cannon has distributed nearly $200,000 in his own funds, most of which he and his wife Princetta amassed by living frugally on his salary, which was never more than $30,0000. Later, when Princetta was struck with terminal cancer, well-wishers from across the United States returned the favor and pitched in to buy the Cannons a more comfortable home. Though Princetta succumbed to the disease soon afterward, Thomas continued to focus on his charitable work until his death in 2005.

8. Ted Turner

Few people have moderate opinions on bold and outspoken Georgia-based billionaire Ted Turner – he tends to inspire either intense admiration or loathing. The media magnate has ownership stakes in CNN, WTBS, and the Atlanta Braves, and has amassed more American real estate than any other private individual. But before you dismiss Turner as nothing more than a brazen capitalist, it’s also important to note that his charitable donations and work on behalf of environmental conservation causes have catapulted him into the rarefied ranks of the world’s top philanthropists. In 1998, Turner sparked a firestorm of media interest when he pledged $1 billon of his then $3 billion fortune to the United Nations, a then-unprecedented act of philanthropic largesse. Since then, Turner has also made sizable donations to an array of environmental causes and organizations designed to assist the development of third-world countries.

7. Larry Stewart

In the late 1970s, Kansas City resident Larry Stewart suffered a devastating string of bad career luck when he was fired twice in two years. What’s more, both the terminations occurred right before Christmas, adding insult to injury. After the second incident, a sympathetic waitress tried to cheer up the down-on-his-luck Stewart with a gift of a free meal. Surprised by how much the kind gesture cheered him up, Stewart began to show the same kindness demonstrated to him to others he encountered. In his first such act, he gave a carhop a large tip. Soon afterwards, Stewart upped the ante and began handing out money to people he saw on the street, a tradition he would carry on under the anonymous moniker “Secret Santa” for nearly three decades. Just before Stewart succumbed to esophageal cancer in 2007, he revealed his story to local media outlets. Since then, Secret Santa clubs have sprung up around the nation that are dedicated to carrying on Stewart’s tradition of generosity.

6. Warren Buffett

The so-called “Oracle of Omaha” is widely recognized as one of the world’s savviest and most successful businessmen. Warren Buffett has advised presidents and various other heads of state on all things business-related, and he’s widely regarded as one of the world’s most skillful investors. Still, even with a personal fortune that is estimated to be more than $60 billion, ranking second only to Microsoft founder Bill Gates on the list of the wealthiest Americans, Buffett remains humble and chooses to stick to a relatively modest lifestyle. His philanthropic efforts are fueled in part by his belief that families should not pass significant wealth to their heirs, as the offspring of these wealthy dynasties tend to be unproductive and complacent, rather than contributing fully to society. In 2006, Buffett made a public pledge to give away his personal fortune, with the bulk of the money going to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Buffet promptly followed up on his pledge by signing over ownership of stock worth more than $30 billion, which experts consider to be single largest donation ever recorded.

5. George Soros

Though often a lightning rod for controversy, Hungarian-born business man and currency speculator George Soros has emerged as one of the most significant figures in the global philanthropic landscape in recent years. Through years of savvy investments and currency swaps, Soros amassed a personal fortune estimated to be worth more than $13 billon – including a one-day take of more than $1 billion in the controversial “Black Wednesday” currency crisis that nearly brought some of England’s most prominent financial institutions to their knees. From the get-go, George Soros’ charitable donations have been somewhat political in tone, as with the millions of dollars he funneled to groups involved in the transition of Hungary to capitalism, in fomenting Georgia’s “Rose Revolution,” and, more recently, to the defeat of George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign. In recent years, Soros’ charitable donations have focused on issues such as developing technological infrastructure in poor nations and helping to eradicate poverty in Africa and elsewhere. As of 2007, Time magazine estimated that Soros’ foundation had donated more than $6 billion.

4. Bill Gates

The company he helped to create — software giant Microsoft — has often come under fire for allegedly engaging in non-competitive business practices, and as far as spokespeople go, he’s kind of awkward, to put it mildly. But no matter what else you can say about Bill Gates, one thing is incontestable – the richest man in America has emerged as perhaps the single most important figure in global philanthropy in recent years. Founded in 1994, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation now has an endowment of more than $33 billion, and analysts say that its record-breaking donations in fields such as the treatment and eradication of malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS have made a significant difference in the lives of many of the world’s poorest populations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a mandate to donate at least 5% of its assets each year, which amounts to more than $1.5 billion a year based on current funding levels.

3. Paul Newman

Actor Paul Newman amassed a significant personal fortune over the course of his career in the movies, turning his boyish good lucks and photogenic charm into plum roles in classic films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, and Cool Hand Luke. Although he had always dabbled in philanthropy, it wasn’t until 1982 that Newman took a more serious approach to charity, forming the brand “Newman’s Own” with the intention of donating all of the profits garnered by the company to good causes. With an initial focus on salad dressing, the company soon had products for sale on virtually every aisle in the typical American grocery store, with offerings ranging from pasta sauce to dog food. In 1993, the company created a subsidiary called Newman’s Own Organics which applied the same model to the then virtually unheard of realm of organic foods. Over the course of the existence of the Newman’s Own brand, nearly $300 million has been generated for charity.

2. Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey began her career as a local newscaster and has created a multibillion-dollar media powerhouse the likes of which have never been seen. Along the way, she accumulated a personal fortune estimated to be in the $2 billion range, making her the richest African American in history. Since the beginning, Oprah has been generous with her earnings, making sizable charitable donations since her syndicated daytime talk show was first brought to the national market. She has given millions of dollars to charitable causes around the globe, including donations of more than $50 million to create a girls’ school in South Africa. In addition to her own charitable work, the media magnate founded Oprah’s Angel Network in 1998 with the aim of encouraging people everywhere to engage in philanthropic and charitable acts to the best of their financial ability.

1. Slacktavists, Armchair Philanthropists, and….You

Although the massive one-time donations made by wealthy philanthropists often get the most media coverage, experts say that real social change can only be effected when everybody gets in on the act. That’s why nonprofit organizations and other groups are trying to make it as simple as possible for average people to get involved in philanthropy. Case in point: after a series of devastating earthquakes hit Haiti in January 2010, millions of cell phone users donated to relief efforts by sending a text message to a special number set up by the Red Cross. Most of the donations were only $10 each, but in the end, more than $22 million was collected, proving once and for all exactly how true the old adage about strength in numbers really is.