CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a whopper $350 million gift to Johns Hopkins University, raising his total aid to the Baltimore school to $1.1 billion over four decades. The new donation will pay for student scholarships and 50 new professors.
It was another shining example of how philanthropists "give back" to the society that enabled them to become wealthy -- improving life for the public in general.
Ever since tycoons like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, it has been a U.S. tradition for the affluent to help fund libraries, hospitals, parks, disaster relief, universities, homeless shelters, concert halls, orphanages, public broadcasting, disease research, museums and other boons for people.
Bloomberg was a mediocre C-level high school student, but Johns Hopkins took a chance on him, and he blossomed into an American dynamo. (Perhaps more universities should accept less-promising applicants.) Now Bloomberg is a flamboyant self-made billionaire who got rich in finance, then news -- especially rapid delivery of inside business news to big-money customers. He serves without pay as New York's mayor. He was a Democrat who turned Republican who turned independent. He has vowed to donate his entire $25 billion fortune.
"I am a big believer in giving it all away, and have always said that the best financial planning ends with bouncing the check to the undertaker," he joked in a commencement address.
Among hundreds of large gifts, he has pledged $220 million to fight cigarette smoking around the world -- and $50 million to the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" program to curtail fossil fuel pollution.
America is lucky to have major donors like Bloomberg. One of them, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, now devotes full time to running the foundation he created with $30 billion of his wealth, plus tens of billions waiting in reserve. He persuaded super-investor Warren Buffett to funnel $31 billion more through his Gates Foundation.
Another big giver, Chuck Feeney, an Irish-American from a blue-collar family, got rich by creating Duty Free Shops. He lives simply, spending little on himself, but he gave $9 billion to a foundation helping social reforms around the world. He wrote to fellow philanthropists Gates and Buffett:
"I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living -- to personally devote oneself to improve the human condition."
TV tycoon Ted Turner donated $1 billion to the United Nations to ease suffering around the planet. Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is on a similar track, giving a half-billion to a Silicon Valley charity, plus $100 million to Newark public schools.
Few people are in the billionaire class -- but nearly everyone can donate some amount to help worthy causes that brighten their communities, states or nations. As Feeney said, it's rewarding. And it's noble.