Zuckerberg, Zuckerman Nine-Figure Gifts Boost Charity

David Rockefeller Jr. smiled often, sipped white wine and mingled with patrons at his Sailors for the Sea charity dinner in New York last month.

Ticket sales and pledges exceeded his $500,000 goal before dinner was served at Christie’s auction house. By the time dessert arrived, a live and silent auction boosted the total raised to more than $750,000 for his ocean-conservation charity.

“What’s occurred in 2012 has been in the right direction,” Rockefeller said in an interview about the climate for giving. “People are feeling more comfortable, and giving isn’t cutting into the marrow of their net worth.”

Four years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. helped trigger the worst economic downturn in 80 years, many nonprofits in the U.S. are seeing an improvement in charitable giving. Donors are more comfortable writing checks. Fundraisers are working harder to increase their donor base and tap existing patrons.

After falling 2.9 percent in 2009, private donations to the arts rose in 2010 by 5.7 percent and then by 4.1 percent to $13.1 billion in 2011, according to the most recent figures from the Giving USA Foundation.

Not Robust

“What we’re seeing is a J-curve recovery,” said Patrick Rooney, associate dean for academic affairs and research at the Indiana University School of Philanthropy. “It’s nice that we’re having a recovery, but we’re not getting the kind of robust recovery that we would prefer.”

Rob Mitchell, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based Atlas of Giving, sees total charitable giving rising to about $375.1 billion in 2013 up from $369.2 billion last year. Donations this past December rose to $31.4 billion from $29.5 billion the same month a year ago. The Atlas projects another giving increase this month to $31.4 billion from $29.9 billion in January 2012.

“There’s a rise of niche organizations that are using technology and social media very effectively in their fundraising practice,” Mitchell said.

Yesterday, Stewart Rahr, who made his fortune as the owner of the wholesale pharmaceutical distributor Kinray Inc., gave $10 million to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the largest individual donation in the foundation’s history.

“The economic climate is still extremely difficult, but I felt the children are in need,” Rahr said by phone about the kids with life-threatening illnesses whose wishes are granted by the nonprofit. “This is also the 30th anniversary year (of the New York chapter), so I said the time was right,”

Eight Zeros

Nine-figure gifts of more than $200 million, rare in the past two years, helped contribute to the increase. Facebook.com’s founder and chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, pledged $498.8 million in stock last month to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which focuses on health and education issues.

In October, hedge-fund mogul John Paulson pledged $100 million to the Central Park Conservancy in New York, which maintains the landmark green space. Last month, real-estate titan Mortimer Zuckerman gave $200 million to Columbia University to endow its Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Philanthropist Warren Buffett had the largest gift of 2012, with $3 billion to his children’s philanthropic pursuits.

Clooney Lunch

Big-ticket items at charity auctions will continue to increase next year because wealthy donors are bidding top dollar for luxury goods, said Coppy Holzman, founder of online auctioneer Charitybuzz.com. His company auctioned off a lunch with George Clooney for $58,000 to benefit the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. He also sold a Fernando Botero painting last month for $340,000 to benefit the European School of Economics Foundation.

“We couldn’t be more bullish,” said Holzman, whose company has raised more than $75 million for charities since it began in 2005. “November was a record month, and December was by far even better.”

Many donors have become more selective about the charities they support and the amounts donated. Houston philanthropist Kitty King Powell took a hard look at the finances of the city’s ballet, grand opera and symphony last fall before giving the nonprofits $500,000 each.

“I knew of their need, but they had to be strong organizations, otherwise we wouldn’t have given to them,” said Nancy Powell Moore, president and treasurer of the Powell Foundation started by her mother. “My parents believe that you don’t give to a black hole.”

Young Patrons

Nonprofits are also trying to push wealthy donors and sponsors to give more and expand the ranks of young donors. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which experienced a retreat of some corporate sponsors in recent years, saw banks such as Wells Fargo & Co. step up their support this fiscal year, said board chairman David Bohnett.

The Houston Symphony started a young patrons group to help it meet its $29 million budget and cultivate a new generation of givers, said Executive Director Mark Hanson.

“It’s not just the $1 million gifts, it’s a relentless effort to raise people from a level where they were to a new level of giving,” Melanie Forman, the New York Philharmonic’s vice president of development, said by phone.

Muse highlights include Jeffrey Burke on books, Robert Heller on music.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE