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Commerce and Philanthropy: The Forbes 400

October 15, 2012

The 2012 Forbes 400 list (The Richest People in America) was out last week (October 8, 2012), and it's fascinating to see the close connection between successful entrepreneurs and personal philanthropy. The country's wealthiest individuals – mostly people who have made their fortunes through business – are also some of the country's biggest philanthropists.

In fact, Steve Forbes, in his introduction asserts the following:

"Commerce and philanthropy are considered to be polar opposites. They're not; they are two sides of the same coin. Both are about meeting the needs of people. To succeed in either sector requires entrepreneurial innovation and energy. Hence the seeming paradox of the U.S.: The most commercial nation ever birthed is also the most philanthropic."

The co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, is the richest person in the country ($66 billion), and he's also the most generous. He's given away $28 billion. He and Warren Buffet (no. 2 on the Top 20 list with $46 billion) continue to recruit members to their Giving Pledge – so far 91 people have pledged to donate at least half of their wealth.

The Walton family (Christy Walton, Jim Walton, Alice Walton, S. Robson Walton), founders of Walmart, are worth $107 billion combined. They've donated over $2 billion over the past five years to the Walton Family Foundation, which focuses on education reform, wildlife conservation and quality-of-life issues in their home state of Arkansas. Alice Walton recently opened the new Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville.

Jeff Bezos, founder of, is worth an estimated $23.2 billion (no. 11 on the list). He and his wife recently donated $2.5 million to Washington United for Marriage, a group backing the legalization of same-sex marriage in the couple's home state.

Michael Bloomberg (no. 10 on the list with $25 billion) is an avid philanthropist, and over the years, he's contributed $2.8 billion. In 2011, he donated $330 million to such groups as the Sierra Club, the Alliance for the Arts and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

It's interesting to see what causes these billionaires give to.

The top givers to Education?

  • Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, T. Boone Pickens and Oprah Winfrey

The top givers to Health?

  • Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Paul Allen and Larry Ellison

To the Environment?

  • Gordon Moore, Thomas Friedkin, Thomas Steyer and Michael Bloomberg

And, to Poverty?

  • Paul Tudor Jones, George Soros. Jeff Skoll and Thomas Siebel

In his introduction, Steve Forbes also makes the following observation:

"Movies, TV shows and novels love to portray businesspeople as a villainous, grasping and murderous lot out to cheat customers, pollute the air and water and make everyone's lives more miserable. What gets overlooked in that shopworn caricature is that in a true free market people succeed only by offering a service or product that somebody wants and is willing to pay for, just as the most effective philanthropy is carried out by individuals who know that dreams and good intentions are only the start, that charity doesn't involve simply giving someone a handout, patting yourself on the back and then walking away."

In this era of various attempts to divide the nation into the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent, and red states vs. blue states, it's worth noting that successful entrepreneurs and generous philanthropists are often one and the same. Commerce and philanthropy really do go together.

If you have a comment or question, please share it here.

P.S. Did you know that 279 of the Forbes 400 are self-made and 45 of them are women?


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