A Look Back at the Giving of Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's Right-Hand Man

Charlie munger. Kent Sievers/shutterstock

It’s not often that an ultra-successful billionaire businessman becomes known primarily by his association with another far wealthier and better-known billionaire. But such was the case with Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s second-in-command at Berkshire Hathaway, who passed away this week aged 99. 

Six years Buffett’s senior, Munger had relatively fewer resources at his disposal for philanthropy. But considering Berkshire’s phenomenal earnings record and the many decades Munger spent at Buffett’s side, the longtime vice chairman’s riches — and his giving over the years — were still substantial, to say the least. 

At the time of his death, Munger’s estimated net worth stood at $2.6 billion, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy pegs his lifetime giving at a minimum of $550 million. He didn’t empty the safe — and never intended to — but that’s still a pretty respectable sum by the typically penny-pinching standards of billionaire giving. 

Considering Munger was born in the 1920s, it’s also perhaps understandable that his philanthropy was quite traditional. He was, first and foremost, a higher ed mega-giver, disbursing numerous eight- and nine-figure gifts to universities (with some controversy, as we’ll get to). Substantial commitments to arts organizations and other schools complemented Munger’s mainline mega-gifts, along with some health giving. 

Munger’s “eds and meds” approach landed him on a number of donors-to-watch lists over the years, but one list he never joined was that of the Giving Pledgers. Munger defended his decision to stay out of that elite club, cofounded by his renowned business partner, stating in 2019 that “I have already transferred so much to my children that I've already violated [the pledge].”

In that sense, he’s both similar to Buffett in that it’ll be up to others to expend the bulk of his fortune, and different from Buffett in that Munger’s children won’t necessarily be obliged to give their part of the patriarch’s pot to charity — though the giving will likely continue in one form or another. 

A higher ed mega-giver is made

Munger’s personal record when it comes to higher education, the cause to which he dedicated the bulk of his philanthropy while alive, is rather eclectic. Growing up in comfortable but not particularly wealthy circumstances during the Great Depression, Munger began studying math, which he had more than a knack for, at the University of Michigan, before exiting his studies to join the Army Air Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. 

Following the war, Munger managed to secure a spot at Harvard Law despite his lack of an undergrad degree. But a career in law wasn’t in the cards. Re-upping an association with Buffett, whom he’d known in Omaha during his youth, Munger left the legal profession and entered investing. “It soon occurred to me that I’d rather be one of our rich and interesting clients than be their lawyer,” he told the New York Times

The rest, as they say, is history. Buffett and Munger’s partnership at Berkshire netted them billions, with Buffett attributing the firm’s immense success in part to “inspiration, wisdom and participation” from his older partner. 

Unlike Buffett, whose philanthropic paradigm has been to hand the reins over to others — famously the Gates Foundation, but now, increasingly, his children — Munger oversaw numerous mega-gifts, particularly in the last few decades of his life. Only some of that money went to schools he’d attended, but across the board, Munger’s big passion was student housing.

One major higher ed recipient was the University of California at Santa Barbara, which he didn’t attend but lavished with high-dollar support. Other beneficiaries of Munger’s higher ed mega-giving included his would-be alma mater, the University of Michigan, as well as Stanford University. Eight-figure gifts to both Stanford and the University of Michigan in the 2000s paid for residence halls named after Munger. In 2013, another donation of $100 million went to the University of Michigan, again to fund student housing.


The higher ed housing commitment Munger is most famous (or infamous) for, however, came more recently and didn’t go to plan, to put it mildly. That saga started in 2016 when the Berkshire vice chairman pledged $200 million toward the cost of constructing a much more expensive dorm at UCSB. Already grateful for Munger’s prior support, including $65 million for a visiting scholars’ residence at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, the university accepted the billionaire’s “one huge catch” — that he’d be allowed to design the dorm himself. 

Though he had no formal training in the field, Munger was a longtime architecture buff. But administrators’ eagerness to accept the amateur architect’s money came back to bite them when the billionaire unveiled plans for Munger Hall, a vast, block-like edifice designed to house 4,500 students in windowless 10-by-7-foot rooms. 

As we covered in greater depth last year, Munger Hall was poorly received by students and the wider architectural community. Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker’s architecture critic, called it “a grotesque, sick joke — a jail masquerading as a dormitory.” Dennis McFadden, an architect who served on UCSB’s design review committee for the project, resigned in protest, equating Munger Hall to “a social and psychological experiment.” 

Undaunted, Munger defended his design in colorful terms. The university appeared to take his side until August of this year, when UCSB unceremoniously canceled plans to build what had come to be dubbed “Dormzilla,” apparently rendering Munger’s commitment void (though his death may prolong the atmosphere of uncertainty around the gift) . The whole affair was a sorry coda for what had been a solid record of major gifts for student housing, which Munger had rightly characterized as an underfunded cause in higher ed. On the other hand, the obvious takeaways around university administrators’ ready willingness to bend to the whims of billionaire donors don’t need repeating. 

Not just a university donor

While higher ed gifts made up the biggest portion of Munger’s half-billion-plus in lifetime giving, he wasn’t solely a university donor. Other institutions he backed with major gifts over the years include the Huntington Library and Art Museum in San Marino, California, to which he gave $40 million in Berkshire Hathaway stock shortly before he died, following another $33 million gift a decade prior. 

Munger also gave multiple gifts in the seven and low-eight figures to private college preparatory schools in the Los Angeles area, including the Harvard Westlake School and the Marlborough School (he was a longtime trustee of the former, and many of his sons attended). Another big gift worth noting was his commitment of $21 million to Los Angeles’ Good Samaritan Hospital in 2018.

For decades, Munger channeled a part of his philanthropic giving through the Alfred C. Munger Foundation, named after his father. Typical of the “pass-through” foundations of ultra-wealthy living donors, the foundation never built up a substantial endowment, with Munger preferring to fund it year after year as he saw necessary. In 2022, the foundation’s 990 lists Munger as trustee and president, with daughters Wendy and Molly Munger as the only other officers, and no other staff. 

Recently, the bulk of Munger’s giving through the Alfred C. Munger Foundation went to UCSB, with much smaller amounts making their way to a collection of educational, religious and museum organizations, mostly located in California. 

Six-figure gifts also made their way to Planned Parenthood in recent years, echoing in a much more modest way the immense philanthropic support Warren Buffett and his daughter Susie Buffett have extended to reproductive rights causes, mostly through the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation. At one point at least, Munger appears to have shared Buffett’s concerns about global overpopulation, which formed the backdrop for the latter’s abortion giving. Nevertheless, Munger was himself a Republican, albeit one who often broke with the party line.

The next generation — and Warren

It seems like it’ll be up to Munger’s many children to disburse the bulk of late patriarch’s fortune, or retain it. The investor is survived by two daughters from his first marriage — Wendy and Molly — and three sons and one daughter from his second, in addition to two stepsons. While it’s unclear at this point who may be getting what, Munger’s remaining fortune is still hefty enough to power notable giving, even split in so many directions. 

Like Buffett’s children, Munger’s are likely to approach any future giving in their own ways. Both Wendy and Molly had careers in law, with Wendy cofounding the Advancement Project, a progressive civil rights law nonprofit. Son Charles Munger Jr., on the other hand, is a physicist and Republican political activist and donor in California. The New York Times reports that Munger also had 15 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren when he died.

In the end, it’s hard to escape the fact that Munger’s legacy is bound up with that of his world-famous business partner, and that his death feels like a preamble to the passing of Warren Buffett himself, now aged 93 and still worth well over $100 billion.

But looking at their philanthropy, it’s clear that even in his hands-off fashion, Warren Buffett has been the less traditional of the two. His billions have backed the Gateses’ field-shaping giving through their foundation and the still-evolving philanthropic projects of his children — including a quiet and immense program of reproductive rights support. Munger, on the other hand, gave from his own smaller hoard in a more hands-on manner (too hands-on, perhaps, at UCSB) and provided generously for his heirs in a way that didn’t stray too far from the billionaire norm.