Celebrity charities have a decidedly mixed track record. But the New York City-based Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research demonstrates how the power of celebrity, when combined with disciplined and steady management, can do good on a sustained basis.
The now 60-year-old Canadian-born Fox, who rose to fame starring in the “Family Ties” TV series and “Back to the Future” movie trilogy, launched the charity in 2000. It was a few years after he had publicly disclosed that he’d been coping with the degenerative central nervous system disorder since being diagnosed in 1991, at the age of just 29. He said then that he aimed to find a cure for Parkinson’s in his lifetime. It hasn’t happened yet, but in two decades the New York-based foundation has pumped more than $1 billion into hundreds of high-risk, high-reward grants for hard research aimed at slowing and eventually eliminating progression of the disease.
In 2020, the Fox foundation received a record $200 million in donations—thanks in large part to two large gifts from Google co-founder Sergey Brin. That earned the charity its first-ever spot (No. 84) on the Forbes annual list of the U.S.’s 100 top charities. Click here to see the full list of charities, which are ranked according to the private donations they received in their most recent publicly reported fiscal year. Each entry includes detailed data, including financial efficiencies and highest compensated employees. For a description of our methodology and how donors can use the data and other information to help evaluate any charity, click here.
“We’ve always benefited from the ability to raise funds from donors of all sizes,” says Fox Foundation CEO Deborah W. Brooks, an ex-Goldman Sachs vice president who co-founded the charity with the entertainer. “There’s a diversification of how we raise money.” Last year, Fox had 83,000 donors giving $250 or less, with many contributing to “Team Fox” participants that over the years have been in everything from 5K walks to tennis and polo matches.
But Fox also had 113 donors in 2020 who gave more than $100,000 each, and one whale—Brin, the sixth-richest American. Brooks confirms that two entities connected with Brin donated $125 million in 2020. Fox’s IRS filing suggests it was appreciated stock, presumably that of Alphabet, Google’s new corporate name. Brin’s mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he himself has a genetic mutation associated with an increased risk for the disease. Brooks notes most Fox donors have some personal connection to the condition, which may be becoming more common as the population ages. (The average age for the onset of Parkinson’s is around 60 years and only about 2 percent of sufferers are diagnosed before 40, as Fox was.)
Todd Sherer, Fox’s executive vice president, research strategy (he has a Ph.D in neuroscience) acknowledges Parkinson’s is still considered incurable. “Nothing has gotten across the goal line,” he says. “Parkinson’s is a tough disease.” But he says the foundation has helped fund research that has developed new therapies slowing its progression and making it easier for patients to cope.
“We’re doing as much as we can as fast as we can,’’ Brooks adds, citing Fox himself as one who has benefited from the advances.
The entertainer has always left hands-on management to Brooks and others. Sherer served as CEO for 10 years until last spring when Brooks—-who had stepped back to an “executive vice chair” role to raise her family—returned to the CEO job. In 2020 Brooks received total compensation of $987,604 and Sherer, $937,604. Despite those ample salaries, Fox stands out among single-illness charities for its significant research, its high charitable commitment ratio (the percent of total expenses spent on the stated mission, as opposed to fundraising and other overhead) and its high fundraising efficiency (the percent of donations remaining after fundraising costs).
The charity also continues to benefit from the outsized popularity of Fox, who retired from acting last year. When TV’s “Sunday TODAY” host Willie Geist—a Fox Foundation board member—ran the New York Marathon in November, raising a half million for the foundation, Fox popped out of the crowd at the 24 mile mark to cheer him on—creating a classic celebrity-on-celebrity Instagram post.
While Fox’s 27% growth in contributions last year was significant—and largely a function of Brin’s generosity—it’s not the only one of the top 100 to see big gains. Combined donations to these 100 charities rose 10% to $54.4 billion-one of the biggest percentage increases in the 23 years Forbes has been compiling this list. Experts attribute that surge to average donors responding to the suffering caused by Covid-19 and the Covid recession, plus an increase in large gifts of stock. The tax code makes it particularly advantageous to donate appreciated stock and after its initial Covid crash, the market rebounded, with the S&P 500 index posting a 16% gain in 2020, on top of a 29% advance in 2019.
Charities perceived to be helping those hit hard by the steep (but short) Covid recession did particularly well. Notably, the No. 2 charity, Chicago-based Feeding America, a network that supplies 200 food banks nationwide, reported a 26% jump in gifts (mainly donated food) for its fiscal year ended June 30, 2020, and No. 3 Salvation Army, based in Alexandria, Va. posted a 21% increase for its year fiscal ended September 30, 2020. Most of the charities on our list had latest reported fiscal years ending during 2020 and covering the biggest economic impact of the ongoing pandemic. The $54.4 billion the top 100 collectively received amounted to 11.5% of all private charitable giving in the U.S., which, according to data compiled by Giving USA, totaled $449.6 billion.
United Way Worldwide, a private network of more than 1,300 legally separate nonprofits, is again No. 1 on our list. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021 (it’s a quick reporter), the Alexandria, Va.-based charity brought in $3.85 billion. That’s a 7% increase over its 2020 fiscal year, which included the early months of the pandemic and showed a 9% increase in contributions and itself was up 9%, ending a long string of declining collections. While United Way has traditionally been sustained by paycheck deductions, 45 of its chapters received gifts from MacKenzie Scott, just named by Forbes as the World’s Most Powerful Woman, for her groundbreaking efforts to give away her $58 billion fortune.
The cutoff for this year’s list—No. 100—is $167 million in donations, 10% above last year’s $152 million. That spot now belongs to International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a Chicago-based agency that fosters Christian support for Israel. Besides that charity and Fox, there are five other newcomers or returnees to the list: No. 98 Barack Obama Foundation, No. 61 Delivering Good, No. 96 Northern Illinois Food Bank, No. 85 Robin Hood Foundation and No. 73 Second Harvest Heartland. They replace Christian Blind Mission International, Helen Keller International, Junior Achievement USA, Mercy Corps, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Smile Train and Volunteers of America.
Some 24 of the 100 nonprofits reported a total compensation of more than $1 million for at least one employee. Usually, but not always, it was the top person. The average for the 100, $1,093,785, is a record for our list and is 9.5% higher than last year. As usual, the highest paid were chief executives of hospitals: $12,414,295 to Steven J. Corwin of No. 71 New York-Presbyterian Hospital; $5,685,657 to Thomas M. Priselac of No. 62 Cedars-Sinai Health System in Los Angeles; and $5,658,429 to Kenneth Davis of No. 20 Mount Sinai Health Systems in New York. (Total compensation may include benefits, deferred compensation and one-time bonuses, and can be for a different fiscal year than that on the list.)
In a long-running matter, the California Attorney General’s Office currently is appealing a court ruling in favor of two international-aid charities on the list, No. 19 Food for the Poor, of Coconut Beach, Fla., and No. 34 Catholic Medical Mission Board, of New York. Claiming the charities exaggerated both the value of donated goods and financial efficiencies in solicitations to California donors, in 2018 the AG had sought more than $1 million in penalties as part of a cease-and-desist order and administrative proceeding. An administrative law judge cut down much of the case and then a trial judge earlier this year threw out the rest, partly on First Amendment grounds. So far, the two charities have paid nothing to California.
But a third international-aid charity involved in the matter, No. 23 MAP International, of Brunswick, Ga., settled with the AG in December 2020 (after publication of our list last year) and did pay. A copy of the nine-page settlement agreement recently obtained by Forbes shows MAP agreed to stop making one financial efficiency claim and to pay $80,600, the same penalty amount decreed by the administrative law judge. MAP denied California’s allegations, admitted no liability, and the AG agreed not to post the settlement agreement on its website’s page of public notices. In a footnote to its latest available financial statements MAP said it expected the amount would be reimbursed by its directors and officers insurance policy provider. (MAP says its future insurance premiums won’t rise as a result of insurance reimbursement of either the $80,600 or associated legal costs.)