Foundation Assets Reach a Record $1.5 Trillion, Propelled by Investment Gains and Big Donors


Foundation assets rose to an all-time high of $1.5 trillion last month, according to projections by FoundationMark, as endowments posted healthy gains following 2022’s stock slump and some of the wealthiest people on earth pumped billions of dollars into their philanthropies.

The milestone comes just five years after U.S. foundations first reached $1 trillion in 2019, a mark that they took a decade to reach from $500 billion, based on analysis by FoundationMark’s founder and president, John Seitz. Grantmakers are fond of saying philanthropy is but a bit player in American society, but the field’s growing assets are nothing to scoff at.

Foundation assets could soon reach double the value of the combined endowments of the top 700 richest U.S. universities, whose assets totaled $807 billion as of June 2022, according to the latest data available from the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Meanwhile, the value of all foundation investments — including bonds, real estate, etc. — is already equivalent to about 3% of the entire U.S. stock market.

Even as the sector grows more top-heavy, its overall assets are swelling partly due to the sheer number of institutions, with more than 125,000 private foundations, compared to fewer than 5,000 colleges. “There are foundations that you’ve never ever heard of in your life that have $100 million — and there’s a whole bunch that are at $50 and $75” million, Seitz said.

Then there’s grantmaking. Total disbursements — a figure that is mostly grantmaking, but on the 990 forms foundations file with the IRS also includes costs like investment expenses and taxes — are also at a high water mark, projected to fall just short of $100 billion in 2023, twice the amount of a decade before. That’s more than all but five U.S. states’ expenditures, based on 2021 data from Kaiser Family Foundation.

This new grantmaking record arrives amid a two-decade climb in foundations’ share of the philanthropic pie. Accounting for just 5% of total U.S. giving in 1982, foundations were responsible for 21% of it in 2022, or $1 out of every $5 given to charity, according to Giving USA’s 2023 report. While everyday people making small contributions continue to account for the bulk of giving, the total number of donors is shrinking as the ultra-wealthy make up a bigger share.

These figures do not even account for megadonors who do their giving without any foundations, most using what are often called philanthropic LLCs, such as MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Steve and Connie Ballmer.

On top of all that, the assets held in donor-advised funds have risen precipitously over the past several years, reaching $229 billion in 2022, according to the National Philanthropic Trust’s 2023 DAF Report. While that marks a slight decline from 2021 due to stock market contraction, DAF assets have still nearly doubled in the past five years and their growth will likely rebound with the market. Although they’re not included in the above $1.5 trillion figure for foundations, rising DAF assets are another part of the trend toward a bigger and more top-heavy philanthropic sector.

Amid all this growth, there does appear to be a slowdown over the past few years in just how fast the pool of grant dollars is rising. After increasing more than 8% annually in the three years leading into the pandemic, and spiking at a growth rate of 12% in 2021, grantmaking rose only 6.7% the following year, and FoundationMark estimates it climbed only 5.5% last year. Even slowing growth can feel like contraction to some, so perhaps that’s why uncertainty reigns in some corners of the sector, such as climate, where grantmaking has measurably slowed.

What drove the asset gains?

Credit goes to the stock pickers and endowment managers. Investment gains likely accounted for nearly two-thirds of the climb to $1.5 trillion, contributing a projected $677 billion over the past five years, FoundationMark estimates. 

Even so, foundations actually underperformed versus a smoking-hot stock market, reflecting grantmaking institutions’  typically more conservative investment approach. FoundationMark’s GIV Index projects an average five-year gain of 9.0% by the nation’s foundations through December 2023, versus a 15.7% rise for the S&P 500 index. 

Actual donations accounted for the other third of asset gains. FoundationMark projects a $369 billion total over the past five years by estimating the total for 2023, for which data is not yet available. Even based on known donations from 2018 to 2022, the numbers are impressive, based on a list produced by Seitz. The fastest-growing foundations serve as a snapshot, if imperfect, of this era’s mega-philanthropists. The top spots, for instance, go to institutions backed by three of America’s richest men.

Contributions by Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates and Warren Buffett meant that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation led the list, with $37 billion in total contributions over that period, according to the analysis. The foundations of Elon Musk ($7.9 billion) and Michael Bloomberg ($3.8 billion) saw the next largest influxes. Forbes estimates all three men saw their wealth increase over that same stretch, with Bloomberg’s nearly doubling and Musk’s growing nearly 10-fold.

Other megadonors whose foundations were among the top recipients during that span include Walmart heir Alice Walton ($3.3 billion), Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan ($2.7 billion), and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, former journalist Cari Tuna ($2.4 billion). Still more institutions received $1 billion and change, including the operations of long-time donors like George Soros and former hedge fund manager John Arnold and his wife, Laura. Buffett, too, sent that much to the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation.

These massive contributions are another reminder of the new elites within philanthropy, with tech billionaires taking the place of last century’s elites and cementing the trend toward a more top-heavy, major-donor-driven field.

“We've got this old guard that was, you know, Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie,” Seitz said. “You look at the top now and it's Musk, Crankstart, Zuckerberg.”