The name of Oprah Winfrey, the world's first black female billionaire, was conspicuously absent from the Midas list of do-gooders released this week by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who have dragooned their billionaire brethren into promising to give away half their fortune. Mr. Buffett has said he intends to call Ms. Winfrey about making a public commitment to this philanthropic endeavor, and while I'm sure the conversation will be more than cordial, I'll wager that the lady in question, whose net worth is $2.4 billion, will be unresponsive.
After all, Oprah Winfrey has already established herself as a beloved American icon and does not need the P.R. boost that will bestow the 40 financial titans who have signed "The Giving Pledge" to share their riches with those less fortunate. But more importantly, Oprah would never voluntarily put herself on the public watch list that will dog the dollars of these philanthropists down to their last decimal, reporting on how much they donate, to whom, when and why. Diane Sawyer has already announced on ABC World News: "We'll be watching." Such public scrutiny is loathsome to someone as controlling as Oprah who has kept her finances as private as possible.
Yet, unlike some of the Buffett-Gates givers, she has publicized her philanthropy over the years through press conferences, interviews and her daily talk show. Her giving in the early years of her career was minimal -- less than 10 percent of her incredible income -- but in 1998 she began increasing her charitable contributions and making more sizable donations to her charitable foundation:
Her biggest contribution is to her $40 million school in South Africa, The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which she supports through the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. She has said that the school will be her legacy. She decided long ago to make her philanthropic investment in South Africa rather than America, where she said poor children did not appreciate education.
"I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going," Oprah said. "The sense that you need to learn just isn't there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."
While many applauded Oprah for opening her heart to young girls in South Africa, some criticized her for not investing in the youth of America. "I find it interesting that white people are concerned about me educating black girls," she said. When the chorus of carps continued, Oprah spoke sharply to all her critics in an interview with BET: "To hell with your criticism," she said. "I don't care what you have to say about what I did. I did it."
As you can see from the chart below, Oprah contributed 7.75 percent of her income over the last few years to her school:
A few months after opening in 2007, Oprah's Leadership Academy became mired in scandal. Seven students were expelled for lesbian liaisons, and criminal charges were lodged against a dorm matron on fourteen counts of sexual abuse and abasement of students. The trial continues to drag on in Johannesburg.
To date, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have received commitments from 40 people to sign "The Giving Pledge," eleven of whom are not even billionaires or listed on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, but are well-known for their philanthropy. Oprah, who has made every money list imaginable, and is revered for her good works, has yet to sign. Perhaps Mr. Buffett will be able to persuade her to join philanthropist David Rockefeller, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, entertainment executive Barry Diller, Oracle's co-founder Larry Ellison, energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, media mogul Ted Turner, film director George Lucas and investor Ron Perelman. But odds are that this is one club Oprah does not want to join.
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