c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

Charitable millionaires and billionaires start out like anyone else — one check and then another. Yet as their wealth grows, giving away their money becomes more complicated.

If you are giving $20 or even $200 to an organization, you feel good and hope they use it well. If you give $20 million to the same organization, you might still feel good, but you worry about how it will be used. The process of giving changes. An increased capacity for generosity also brings attention from advisers trying to guide your philanthropy — for a fee, of course — as well as charities hoping to receive a grant.

It is easy to see how challenging, perhaps even frustrating, being a heavy-duty philanthropist can be as the dollars rise. Given the proliferation of nonprofits in the United States — there were nearly 1.6 million in 2011, according to the Urban Institute, a 25 percent increase in one decade — the very wealthy are not the only ones who will struggle to make a choice: These charities are soliciting all of us.

But in the giving season, I wanted to know what, if anything, we can learn from people at the very top, people who give away more money in a year (or in some cases, a day) than most of us could earn in multiple lifetimes. Are there any lessons on how they give that can inform our own reasons for giving — or shine light on our excuses for not being charitable?

As case studies, I’ve selected two intriguing philanthropists, a billionaire and a multimillionaire, who are both widely known in their spheres of influence but are not household names like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. They are the philanthropists next door, albeit ones with significant assets.

Up this week is Jon M. Huntsman Sr., a billionaire today who started giving away money as soon as he had a job.

On Friday night, he announced a $100 million gift to the Huntsman Cancer Institute, bringing his total giving to the organization to $450 million.

Huntsman, the father of Jon Huntsman Jr., a who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, started donating to causes that helped people in need, on top of the 10 percent of his salary that went to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the time, in the late 1950s, he said he earned $320 a month as a naval officer, later getting a slight bump in pay selling eggs in Los Angeles.

Today, Huntsman has given away more than $1 billion. According to Forbes Magazine in 2011, that made him one of 19 billionaires — out some 1,200 worldwide — to give away that much.

Huntsman, 76, made his first fortune with Huntsman Container Corp., which, in 1974, invented the clamshell box that holds a McDonald’s Big Mac. He sold the company two years later and got into the polystyrene business, with Huntsman Chemical Corp. That company became a wide-ranging entity, Huntsman Corp., that made everything from specialty textiles to, more recently, a new carbon-fiber chassis for the Lamborghini Aventador. Today it has annual revenue, he said, of $12 billion. His wealth ballooned.

Yet he said he had been giving away money all along. By the time he and his wife, Karen, made their first $1 million, they had given 25 percent of it away, he said.

That may sound easy for a man who is a billionaire, but there was no early indication that he would ever be so wealthy. His father was a rural schoolteacher, and Huntsman said he did not have a role model for charitable giving. “Being raised in Idaho, you think everyone is poor,” he said. “Then you see the wider world.”

He received his undergraduate degree from the Wharton School and MBA from the University of Southern California, but the principles that drove him to give — a desire to help people — were already in place.

Through the 1980s, he described the gifts as small. In those days the Huntsmans were giving to 30 or 40 charities, at $10,000 to $50,000 per donation, with the occasional multimillion-dollar gift. Then in 1992, Huntsman had his first bout of cancer and has survived three recurrences since then.

After the first one, he began whittling down the causes to five or six, with cancer as the main one. The disease killed his mother, father and stepmother. And over the last 20 years, Huntsman has become known for his focus on cancer research and treatment through the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah.

“My wife and I determined that it was better to select a fewer number of charitable organizations and make a bigger difference,” he said.


More than just exhibiting focus themselves, billionaires like Huntsman tend to want to enlist their entire network to support a cause, said Diane Whitty, global head of the philanthropy center at J.P. Morgan Private Bank.

“People who have been so successful and have done it all have trouble pulling back and realizing they can’t do it all,” she said. “Even the Gates Foundation, with their $37 billion, will tell you we need more people who are interested in global health.”

It is through these contacts that they can effect change, not unlike the way an average person enlists friends and family to a cause.

Half of the gift he announced Friday, for instance, came from him; he rustled up the other half from the Mormon Church, the state of Utah and Intermountain Healthcare, which operates 22 hospitals in Utah and Idaho.

If he hadn’t been able to enlist others, he was prepared to give all $100 million himself. “If someone said, ‘Jon, we need $250 million a year from now and we can make a dramatic breakthrough for ovarian cancer,’ I’d have $250 million in two months,” he said. “You just work day and night if the cause in your heart is justified. You just go out and drive yourself to get the money. And you have fun doing it. It’s a real rush. It’s also very emotional for me.”


He said he hadn’t kept track of how much he had given over the years, but said that Forbes estimated a few years back that it was $1.3 billion. He said if that was correct, the number had probably risen to $1.6 billion, with a third of that going to cancer research.

Huntsman was one of the first 45 people to pledge to give half of his wealth to charity under the Giving Pledge, a challenge from Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. But since then he has been critical of what he considers stinginess among some of his fellow billionaires. “My suggestion was to give 80 percent away,” he said. “Why do they need half of $10 billion to live on?”

He added, “The people I particularly dislike are those who say ‘I’m going to leave it in my will.’ What they’re really saying is ‘If I could live forever, I wouldn’t give any of it away.’”

While his focus is clearly on cancer research and treatment, he revels in the type of checkbook philanthropy that is small beans for him, but changes lives. Recently, he said he was chatting with a young waiter in a restaurant who told him he was a Cuban refugee working to put himself through college. “He said, ‘I want to make a better life for myself’,’” Huntsman recalled. “I said, ‘Give me your name and address,’ and I’m sending him through college.”

(Huntsman provides scholarships for hundreds of students each year and donated the money to create a business school at Utah State University.)

It was a similar impulse that prompted him to start donating money after an earthquake devastated Armenia in 1988. He said he had given $50 million to relief efforts in Armenia, including money to build schools and hospitals.

“I don’t know what took hold of me or why I gave,” he said. “It just got to my heart. I was watching television and I saw these families were destroyed. I called my dear friend Armand Hammer and we went over there together.”

Very few of us can help pay for a stranger’s college tuition — let alone rebuild a country — no matter how much we are moved, but most of us can identify with the desire to respond to an immediate need. That’s something that shouldn’t be lost in a season where advisers might tell you the best ways to have an impact.