12 famous philanthropists

The secret to living is giving. That is to say, by contributing to the well-being of others, our communities and the world at large, we find more meaning in life. Many high-profile people have learned this lesson, choosing to donate their financial resources to communities and causes that need support. Famous philanthropists make a big difference by giving back some of their wealth and set an important example for their wide fan base. 

So what is a philanthropist? Take Tony Robbins. For years, Tony has given to others, from leading the 1 Billion Meals Challenge with Feeding America (which has helped  provide more than 700 million meals so far to those in need), to working with Operation Underground Railroad to prevent child trafficking, Tony’s learned that the key to fulfillment is not receiving, but giving. 

Tony is one of many people making a positive impact on the causes that matter to them. Many famous philanthropists have earned big, yet understand that their wealth comes with a measure of responsibility to give back. They use their financial resources to spread change and contribute to areas they are passionate about. And even if you don’t have millions of dollars, you can learn how to become a philanthropist.

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What is a philanthropist?

To find the keys to becoming a philanthropist, no matter your financial means, let’s take a deeper look at the question, “What is a philanthropist?” 

Let’s start with the philanthropist meaning straight from the dictionary:

phi·lan·thro·pist
/fəˈlanTHrəpəst/
noun: philanthropist; plural noun: philanthrophists
1. a person who seeks to promote the welfare of others, especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.

In short, a philanthropist is someone who donates their money, experience, time, talent or skills to help others and create a better world. Though we often think of them as people who have millions of dollars to donate, you don’t have to be a famous philanthropist with a huge net worth to qualify. This is just one of a few misconceptions about how to be a philanthropist.

What are the benefits of being a philanthropist?

Most philanthropists aren’t in it for fame or recognition. The biggest benefit of being a philanthropist is that it fulfills some of our deepest human needs. We all have these needs: certainty, significance, variety, love/connection, growth and contribution. Which of these needs is most important to us and the ways we go about fulfilling them are what make us who we are.

Philanthropy fulfills our need for contribution. Have you ever reached a major milestone in your life – your dream job, starting a business, financial freedom – and wondered why you still feel like something is missing? It’s likely because you’re not fulfilling your need for contribution. As Tony says, “It is not what we get, but who we become and what we contribute that gives meaning to our lives.”

Being a philanthropist can actually improve your own life, too. The law of attraction states that we get back the energy we put into the world. By focusing on giving back, making a difference and creating positive change, you’ll create a cycle that brings abundance back to you tenfold.

Is there a difference between charity and philanthropy?

Charity is the actual action that is taken to improve someone’s life: stocking shelves at a food bank like Tony’s Feeding America project, building shelters for refugees or providing medical care after a disaster. As an organization, a charity is the entity that coordinates and supplies these on-the-ground services.

Philanthropy is what supplies charities with the funds, personnel and equipment they need. So what is a philanthropist versus a volunteer? They share many similarities, but philanthropy is a strategic process in which donations of time, skills and/or money are made in order to address a systemic or social issue.

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Is philanthropy considered a career?

Yes, you can absolutely build a career in philanthropy. There are many different paths you can take, from grant writingand program directing to corporate social responsibility and cause marketing. You’ll find consultants and CEOs in philanthropy, just as in the typical business world. For a career in philanthropy, you’ll need a few essential skills: adaptability and perseverance, passion, people skills and a growth mindset. The world of philanthropy can be competitive, but is also one of the most fulfilling careers.  

Looking for tips on how to become a philanthropist? It never hurts to look up to famous philanthropists who are changing the world. Here are 12 of the most influential celebrity philanthropists making a difference.

Bill Gates

bill-gates-philanthropist

Of all the celebrity philanthropists, Bill Gates is referred to most often. The founder of Microsoft has long made headlines for his charitable donations, in part because Gates himself is worth so much. Estimated to be worth over $130 billion, Gates has given away over $50 billion over the years to various nonprofits and causes he is passionate about. He’s responsible for what may be the biggest donation ever: in 2017 he donated more than 64 million Microsoft shares valued at $4.6 billion to his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was founded in 2000. Its company vision is to “improve the quality of life for individuals around the world.” With billions of dollars to use, the foundation has done everything from providing educational resources in Chicago to healthcare support in Nigeria. Its biggest donation ever was $957,000,000 to GAVI Alliance to help increase access to vaccinations. As two of the world’s biggest philanthropists, Bill and Melinda have found a way to make the world a better place through their common goal of giving back. 

Warren Buffett

Since the year 2000, Warren Buffett has given more than $46 billion to charity and is commonly known as one of the world’s biggest philanthropists. As the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett is believed to be worth roughly $96 billion, putting him on the top 10 list of richest people in the world. Buffett has given portions of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Sherwood Foundation and the NoVo Foundation among many others.

In 2012, Buffett pledged more than $1 billion worth of stocks to each of his children’s foundations, amounting to more than $3 billion total – and when tallied together, was one of the biggest donations ever. Not only has this famous philanthropist given away a substantial chunk of his own wealth, but he has also helped put in place a charge for other ultra-rich individuals to do the same. In 2010, Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates launched The Giving Pledge, urging billionaires to publicly dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. Along with his incredible generosity as a philanthropist, Buffett is also known for his humility and commitment to living modestly, showing that he has strong values and knows what it takes to create an extraordinary life.

Oprah Winfrey

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Oprah Winfrey is perhaps one of the most impressive of the world’s top celebrity philanthropists because she truly fits the term “self-made.” After growing up in a poor household in Mississippi and enduring sexual abuse, she still managed to overcome the many obstacles she faced and found major success. Not only has Winfrey brought to light the needs of people around the globe through her talk show and reporting endeavors, but she’s donated millions of dollars through the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation. Her foundation took on most of the responsibilities of the Angel Network and the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation, contributing more than $140 million to The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. 

As a philanthropist, she’s also supported causes like Time’s Up, N Street Village and the Museum of African American History and Culture. Oprah is the epitome of philanthropy and has shown that famous philanthropists don’t have to come from wealthy families and that they can choose the causes that have the most meaning for them.

Michael Jordan

You probably know Michael Jordan as one of the most talented NBA players of all time, but he has transcended that role to become one of the most influential celebrity philanthropists in the nation. Since becoming a majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Jordan has helped the team give away more than $3 million to a number of causes, including those related to the military, education and feeding the hungry.

As a personal philanthropist, he’s made multimillion-dollar donations to Friends of the Children, donated $2 million to Hurricane Florence relief efforts and has served as Make-A-Wish’s Chief Wish Ambassador since 2008, and donated $10 million to open two new medical clinics in his hometown. Jordan has shown that he understands lifelong growth is possible and continues to grow by contributing outside himself to make a big difference in the lives of others.

michael jordan

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg found success at a young age by creating a website in college that later became Facebook. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have pledged to give away 99% of their wealth to charity over the course of their lifetimes. Currently, their fortune is around $114 billion, making them some of the biggest philanthropists on the planet. Together they created the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which aims to provide equal opportunities for people while unlocking human potential.

Like Gates, Zuckerberg’s biggest donation ever was in 2017, when he donated more than $1.8 billion in stock to the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation. By providing funding to science, justice and education initiatives, the Chan-Zuckerberg family is making a world of difference. Given their large personal and professional net worth, it’s likely they’ll stay on top of the famous philanthropist list for many years into the future. This couple has shown that they understand unconditional love and compassion makes both relationships and philanthropy work.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams is a superstar on the court, but she’s just as big of a star when it comes to philanthropic endeavors. Serena and her sister Venus opened The Yetunde Price Resource Center in their hometown of Compton, named after their sister who was a victim of gang violence. The Center creates resources for Compton community members and promotes healing and resiliency for locals. Serena also sells her daughter’s clothing on Poshmark and donates proceeds to the Williams Sisters Fund, which uses the money for violence prevention, education and athletic engagement in the inner city.

serena williams

J.K. Rowling


jk-rowling-philanthropist

When you think of wildly successful authors, J.K. Rowling always comes to mind. The Harry Potter writer has captivated people all over the world with her spellbinding characters and magical world-building. She also comes to mind as one of the world’s high-impact famous philanthropists. From books, movies, theme parks and merchandise sales, Rowling quickly rose to billionaire status.

Today, due to her numerous charitable donations, Rowling is now worth closer to $60 million and has become a philanthropic role model. Her global charity Lumos, named for a spell in the wizarding series, aims to help children who have been wrongfully separated from their families and placed in orphanages. Lumos supports child welfare programming by advocating for and funding various education, health and social care system reforms. Rowling remains one of the most outspoken celebrity philanthropists who backs up her monetary contributions with efforts to enact international political change.

Diane von Furstenberg

Among the most glamorous philanthropists is iconic designer and businesswoman Diane von Furstenberg. The fashion designer responsible for the creation and popularity of the wrap dress, von Furstenberg has become one of the biggest philanthropists in the fashion industry. She and her husband, media mogul and founder of the USA network Barry Diller, have pledged to give over $1 billion in charitable contributions. As the director of The Diller–von Furstenberg Family Foundation, this famous philanthropist has already helped generate millions of dollars to help organizations in the public spaces, community building, education, arts, human rights and environmental sectors.


Pitbull

pitbull rapper

Cuban-American rap superstar Pitbull clearly knows the power of music and happens to be one of the most high-profile celebrity philanthropists in the world. His philanthropic efforts helped create the Sports Leadership and Management Academy (SLAM) in Little Havana to give opportunities to disadvantaged youth in Miami. He’s also made plans to expand SLAM into other locations including Las Vegas and Atlanta.

The entertainment mogul has also been inducted into the Ambassador David M. Walters International Pediatric Hall of Fame for his support of the Miami Children’s Foundation and is an avid supporter of the Imaginate Foundation, an organization that provides resources for low-income families in the Miami area. He may be known as “Mr. Worldwide,” but Pitbull could just as easily be known as “Mr. Philanthropist.”

George Soros

Hedge fund manager George Soros landed on the famous philanthropist list by transferring the bulk of his wealth – over $23 billion – to his charitable organization, the Open Society Foundations. That’s far from his only contribution, however. He’s been giving charitably since 1979 and truly knows the importance of never-ending contribution. His international group of charities works in more than 100 different countries and donates time, talent and money to projects involving public health, refugee relief and scholarships for underprivileged children.

philanthropist

Michael Bloomberg

philanthropist

Politician, author and now one of the country’s biggest philanthropists, Michael Bloomberg is the eleventh richest person in the world. He uses this wealth in a way that is in line with his life’s work – by helping to improve city governments around the world. In 2018 alone, Bloomberg donated $767 million, and has pledged $1.8 billion to his alma mater Johns Hopkins University which will be paid out this year. Bloomberg is the perfect example of a famous philanthropist who clearly understands that living a fulfilling life is only possible when you contribute beyond yourself.

Jeff Bezos

It’s nearly impossible to make a list of the biggest philanthropists without including Jeff Bezos, the founder and former CEO of Amazon. His ability to turn situations to his advantage and build what is arguably the most disruptive business in history has given him immense opportunities to affect change.

The richest man in the world, Bezos has been criticized for his lack of charitable giving in the past and has taken that to heart. In 2018, he became a top philanthropist by giving over $2 billion through his Bezos Day One Fund, mostly to nonprofits that help homeless families. He’s also in the process of creating nonprofit preschools in low-income communities. The son of a Cuban immigrant, Bezos has successfully connected a cause to his charitable giving, an important step for anyone who really wants to get the most out of giving back.

How to become a philanthropist

Famous philanthropists have ample resources at their disposal and nearly unlimited opportunities to help others. They have the funds to make a big difference and the social capital to spread their message. You might not have these same resources at your disposal, but you still have the opportunity to make a positive impact. If you can’t donate goods or money, donate your time or skills. The meaning of being a true philanthropist isn’t about money – it’s about passion.

Stay local

There are many ways that you can give back to your local community without spending money. Serve at a soup kitchen or stock donations at a food pantry. Make boxes for a meal delivery service. Volunteer with an after-school program, become a mentor to at-risk youth or work at a community center. Find a local cause that speaks to you and donate your time.

Raise awareness

What is a philanthropist if not someone who uses their position to help better the lives of others? You may not have as much money as famous philanthropists, but you still have plenty to be grateful for. Advocating for a group less fortunate than yourself is the ultimate way to become a philanthropist without spending a cent.

Use your skills or experience

Everyone has gifts, and many of those gifts are useful when it comes to how to become a philanthropist. Use writing skills to create marketing materials or write grants for a nonprofit. Teach math or reading to disadvantaged kids. If you have knowledge about a specific topic, like the law, accounting or regulations in a certain industry, use it for good.

Set aside a small portion of your paycheck

Even five dollars a week adds up to more than $250 per year. Save a small amount each week, then make an annual donation at a certain time of year. Donate school supplies in the fall, holiday gifts in the winter or books for summer reading at the beginning of the break.

FAQs about philanthropists
What were the biggest charitable donations in 2020?

In 2020, Jeff Bezos pledged $10 billion to fight climate change and dispersed $791 million in his first grants from that pledge. That was split between 16 groups including the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Wildlife Fund. Nike cofounder Phil Knight donated $900 million to his own Knight Foundation and $300 million to the University of Oregon for a total of $1.2 billion. Construction magnate Fred Kummer also donated $300 million to an educational institution, Missouri University of Science and Technology. Despite a worldwide pandemic and recession, these philanthropists prove that it’s always a good time to give.

What qualifies someone as a philanthropist?

A philanthropist is anyone who donates their money or time to make a difference in the lives of others. While celebrities and entrepreneurs often come to mind, the truth is that anyone can be philanthropic, whether you have millions of dollars or just a few hundred in the bank. If you use your money, experience or talent to make a difference in the lives of others and feel the fulfillment that comes from selfless acts of kindness, you’re a philanthropist.

Who is the biggest philanthropist in the world?

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett frequently top the list of biggest philanthropists. In 2018, Buffet donated $3.4 billion to foundations dedicated to women’s rights, social justice and fighting poverty, and has also donated to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Through his foundation, Gates has given away $2.6 billion to causes like eradicating HIV and polio. Over their entire lifetimes, Buffett has donated $21.5 billion and Gates $27 billion, putting them leagues ahead of any other famous philanthropists in the world.

Want to learn more about how to become a philanthropist?

Although not all contributions can be as large as the ones made by famous philanthropists, they are still important. Learn how you can give back.