The Monday before Christmas, December 23rd, 2013, hedge-fund manager and major philanthropist Robert W. Wilson leapt from his 16th story apartment to his death. The 87-year-old business mogul had suffered a stroke in June and left a note indicating what had happened:
“The gist of it was that he had had a great life, and done all the things he wanted to, and that the way he chose to die was nothing to be ashamed of and shouldn’t be kept secret,” said Richard Schneidman, the executor of Wilson’s estate. Ever practical, Wilson also included in the note “a list of appointments that would have to be canceled.”
Wilson was married earlier in life, but had been divorced for about 40 years upon his death. He was openly gay, an atheist, and “not the secretive type,” according to Schneidman. Over his lifetime, Wilson donated about $600 million.
Wilson’s wealth peaked at about $800 million in 2000, according to Forbes. After that point, he began giving away much of his money to organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the World Monuments Fund, and the Catholic school system of the Archdiocese of New York (which he saw as more effective than public schools, despite the fact that he was a former Episcopalian who converted to atheism).
Though Robert W. Wilson had donated most of his wealth to charity by the time he died (about 75%), he interestingly enough declined a request by Bill Gates to join the Giving Pledge three years prior to his death. According to a string of emails acquired by Buzzfeed, Wilson believed that the pledge had a loophole that made it less effective than it claimed.
“I have found that most billionaires or near billionaires hate giving large sums of money away while alive and instead set up family-controlled foundations to do it for them after death,” he wrote. “And these foundations become, more often than not bureaucracy-ridden sluggards.”
Wilson was undoubtedly a frugal man, and once said in an interview with Forbes, “One of the dumbest things you can do with money is spend it.” He took the subway most of his life and often pledged donations with the condition that he would only deliver the money after other donors had matched his contribution, a gift-matching system that wasn’t common at the time but today is used much more frequently.
Despite the fact that many may not agree with his less-than-warm opinion of the touted Giving Pledge, there’s one thing that no one can argue: Robert W. Wilson was a major philanthropist, if frugal. It’s not just anyone that gives away 75% of their wealth.