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Cordelia May tops givers list

| Monday, Feb. 20, 2006

The late Cordelia Scaife May was America's most generous giver last year, donating nearly a tenth of the $4.3 billion invested in charitable causes by the nation's leading philanthropists, according to a list released today.

May, of Ligonier, Westmoreland County, left $404 million in cash and property to the Downtown-based Colcom Foundation and other charitable organizations. That put her ahead of Bill and Melinda Gates and many others in an annual ranking of the nation's top 60 philanthropists by the online magazine Slate and the Washington, D.C.-based Chronicle of Philanthropy.

"My sister was an extraordinarily generous individual during her lifetime, contributing to a variety of causes," said her brother, Dick Scaife. "I am pleased to see both her generous spirit and the recognition of it extended beyond her life."

Microsoft co-founder Gates, 50, and his wife, 41, gave $320 million to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That donation was part of $3.35 billion the couple pledged to their foundation, which supports education, global health, libraries and charities in the Pacific Northwest.

Third on the list were KB Home Corp. and SunAmerica Chairman Eli Broad, 72, and his wife, Edythe, 69, who donated $300 million. Half of the money went to the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, which supports civic programs, education, medical and scientific research and art museums.

Most of the money funded causes with personal meaning to the donors.

Named for one of May's favorite books, "Cold Comfort Farm" by Stella Gibbons, the Colcom Foundation -- founded by May in 1996 -- promotes conservation, environmental protection, education and efforts to limit immigration.

Colcom awarded $4.8 million in grants to nonprofits last year, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Colcom supports such groups as the Center for Immigration Studies, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Fort Ligonier Association and the Earth Action Network, according to a 2004 tax filing.

May, who died at age 76 last January of pancreatic cancer, willed 34 acres of pasture and 35 acres of waterfront property worth about $3 million to the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. She also left a $1 million plot to the National Tropical Botanical Garden in the Lawai Valley of Kauai, Hawaii.

A woman who carefully guarded her privacy, May did not seek notice for her generosity. That trait is shared by other donors, Chronicle of Philanthropy editor Stacy Palmer said.

"These are people who otherwise don't get a lot of attention for their giving, or anything else, have a lot of money and are using it philanthropically," Palmer said. "One of the challenges of compiling the list is that a lot of people don't want to talk about it."

May's name had never appeared on the list of leading givers, first published by Slate in 1996. It's the eighth time Bill and Melinda Gates have been cited and the seventh time the Broads have made the list. Until now, the list had not been topped by someone appearing on it for the first time, Palmer said.

Others on the list include oil baron Boone Pickens, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and TV talk show queen Oprah Winfrey.

Eleven people, such as May, left much of their fortunes to charity. Seven were women.

"Usually these big bequests happen because people donate all their money when they die, and when they're alive, they give smaller amounts," Palmer said.

May's giving stretched back over decades.

She founded the Downtown-based Laurel Foundation in 1951 and over the course of her life gave more than $10 million to the organization, which supports the arts, culture and historic groups. It was one of several organizations May created.

"She took very, very serious the responsibility (of charitable giving)," Laurel Vice President Donna Panazzi said.

In addition to championing efforts to protect the environment and safeguard the nation's borders, May quietly devoted millions to promoting the cultural and historical heritage of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania.

"Most of her personal gifts were anonymous," Panazzi said. "Mrs. May always had a deep love and pride for the city and always wanted to contribute to things that would bring people to the city."

May did that not only by giving abundantly but by coming up with priceless ideas, Panazzi said.

Impressed by public art she had seen in the streets of Dallas, May wondered if something similar could be done in Pittsburgh. That spawned DinoMite Days in 2003, when 100 fiberglass dinosaur statues were scattered throughout Pittsburgh to raise money for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland.

The dinosaurs, decorated by local artists, eventually were auctioned off, fetching $270,000 for the museum and another $70,000 for other nonprofits. The Laurel Foundation -- using money from May -- contributed heavily to the project.

It was typical of a generous spirit that seemed to know no bounds.

"She often joked that she didn't do 'funky, feel-good programs,' " Panazzi said. "She just felt our smaller grants wouldn't make as much of a difference."

Top 10

America's most generous givers donated $4.3 billion to charity last year, a sharp drop from 2004, when the top donors gave more than $10 billion, according to the online magazine Slate and the Washington, D.C.-based Chronicle of Philanthropy. The list includes the nation's top 60 givers. A look at the top 10 and the amounts they gave last year:

1. Cordelia Scaife May, 76 (deceased), philanthropist, heir to Mellon banking fortune. Donated $404 million.

2. Bill Gates, 50, Microsoft founder and chairman, and wife, Melinda, 41. $320 million.

3. Eli Broad, 72, founding chairman KB Home Corporation and SunAmerica, and wife, Edythe, 69. $300 million.

4. George Soros, 75, chairman of Soros Fund Management and the Open Society Institute. $240.1 million.

5. Boone Pickens, 77, founder of Mesa Petroleum and BP Capital Management in Dallas. $229.2 million.

6. David Rockefeller, 90, retired chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and inheritance from the Standard Oil Company fortune. $225 million.

7. Michael Bloomberg, 64, New York City mayor and founder of Bloomberg L.P. $144 million.

8. Pierre Omidyar, 38, eBay founder, and wife, Pam Omidyar, 38, HopeLab founder. $133.7 million.

9. Ira A. Fulton, 74, Fulton Homes CEO, and wife, Mary Lou Fulton, 72. $122 million.

10. Lawrence J. Ellison, 62, CEO of Oracle Corp. $115 million.

On the Web

To view the Chronicle of Philanthropy report on the nation's top 60 donors, visit

Source: The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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