With Warren Buffett adding $31 billion to the already formidable assets of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it's easy to think that the nation's largest grant-making foundation is set to save the world.
"There's no reason that we shouldn't be able to cure every one of those top 20 diseases," Bill Gates declared on June 26, sitting alongside his wife and Buffett at a donation ceremony held at the New York Public Library.
But while Buffett and the Gateses were making headlines, the country's nearly 2,600 corporate foundations were busy too. Corporate foundations gave a record $3.6 billion in 2005, a nearly 6 percent increase over the previous year, according to estimates by the Foundation Center, a New York-based institute that tracks corporate philanthropy.
That's more than two and a half times the total grants paid by the Gates Foundation in 2005, which approached $1.4 billion. And it doesn't include the money that companies give directly, without going through a foundation. Total corporate giving increased 22.5 percent last year, to about $13.8 billion.
Whether that growth will continue, however, is an open question. Since the late 1980s, corporate foundation giving has grown more slowly than overall foundation giving, according to Steven Lawrence, the Foundation Center's director of research, even though the number of corporate foundations has doubled. While half of the companies the center surveyed said they plan to increase their giving slightly, about a third said they planned to cut back.
Why? The public and corporate response to last year's tsunami and the Gulf Coast hurricanes boosted donations overall. Absent a similar set of disasters, charitable giving is expected to level off.
But thanks to the Gates-Buffett publicity frenzy, corporate foundations may get a bit of a bounce. "Bill and Melinda Gates deserve tremendous credit for raising the profile of grant-making foundations," Lawrence says. "This is tremendously important both for the resources it brings to people in need, but almost more importantly, for the example it sets. Once you put the money into the foundation, it's there for perpetuity."
Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, says that the recent spate of publicity for the Gates Foundation may benefit other corporate foundations by inspiring companies to give more. "In the public mind, it's a pretty subtle distinction between corporate foundations and the Gates Foundation," she says.