In the world of the wealthy, who gives?

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. The real reason Gates put in play his title to “world's richest man” is his philanthropic giving, according to Bolante / REUTERS / file
/ Source: Forbes

Forbes 400 members fall down the rankings every time they cut a check to charity. Here we add that money back.

In 1999 Bill Gates' net worth briefly topped the $100 billion mark. Today his wealth languishes below the $50 billion barrier. Poor guy.

But placing the blame on a dormant Microsoft stock, which is still down more than 50 percent from its late-1999 high, provides only part of the answer to Gates' decline. The real reason Gates put in play his title to “world's richest man” is his philanthropic giving. As his net worth marched steadily to the 12th digit, all the louder came criticisms that the then-thirtysomething wasn't giving away enough of his fortune to charity. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

So over the next three years he relented, donating $23 billion in Microsoft stock to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Add those shares back, plus his other gifts, and Gates suddenly becomes a whole lot richer — $76.3 billion to be exact — making Warren Buffett once again a distant second.

The Gates Foundation has since made a number of high-profile gifts. But many of the superrich prefer to give out of the spotlight. “Phil and Penny are intensely private people who rarely divulge their philanthropy,” e-mails a Nike spokesman, commenting on the charitable giving of his boss, Phil Knight, and Knight's wife.

Eli Broad, who pledged $60 million last year to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is skeptical that big shots give anonymously: “I'm not aware of any large gifts that are anonymous.” That doesn't prove anything about Phil Knight or any of the others who claim they give lots to charity anonymously.

One thing is clear: Ours is a charitable nation. Without the creation of wealth our system affords, there would be little of the giving that the world depends on.