Rich List Philanthropy Article for Sunday Independent 16.02.2020

So, who on this year’s 2020 Sunday Independent Rich List is philanthropic? Some are, most we simply don’t know. Among the billionaires, JP McManus, Denis O’Brien and Martin Naughton have foundations. Some others on the list have, but prefer to stay under the radar. With wealth increasing dramatically in Ireland, philanthropy is increasingly back on the table for wealthy families.

The most recent Million Pound Donors Report in the UK told us there were 316 donations of £1m+ in 2016, including a significant number of donations of over £25m. Higher education and foundations received the lion’s share, accounting for 67% by value and 41% of the total number of donations. There are green shoots for philanthropy in Ireland too. Our two largest universities, UCD and Trinity have secured seven and a small number of eight figure gifts in recent times. The Naughton family in 2018, through their foundation, donated €25 million – the single largest private philanthropic donation in the history of the state – to the new E3 institute at Trinity. NUIG, UL, Queens and others are also seeking gifts of that scale. While some of the larger gifts raised by Irish universities and also The Ireland Funds are from the USA / overseas, things are improving here too.

The Community Foundation for Ireland in late 2019 announced it had reached the milestone of €50million in grant-making since its inception in 2000. It is a charity in its own right and provides Donor Advised Funds to those who want to give strategically. The organisation also seeks to “shine a light on philanthropy” by awarding people and organisations with its Philanthropist of the Year Awards. The 2020 individual winner was Green Reit founder Stephen Vernon. He donated a €1m MRI scanner to the National Maternity Hospital in 2018. He was also an early significant philanthropic donor to the Royal Irish Academy of Music in 2018 and is a member of The President’s Circle, Wexford Festival Opera, which supports a main stage opera.

Irish American Chuck Feeney famously pioneered the ‘give while you live’ concept and declared “I want the last cheque I write to bounce.” He preferred to make and see impact in his lifetime. Declan Ryan, son of GPA founder Tony, enthusiastically adopted this approach. He set up The One Foundation (name after a U2 song) and set a 10 year timeframe 2004 – 2013. The total donated was a reported €85 million – 90% of it to Irish causes such as Headstrong, Foroige and the Irish Refugee Council.

Inherited / intergenerational wealth and philanthropy are long linked in the UK, and will increasingly be a feature in Ireland. Elizabeth O’Kelly from Laois, died aged 93 in 2016. She bequeathed her entire €30m estate to five charities – each of whom received €6m. They were the Irish Cancer Society; Irish Heart Foundation; Irish Kidney Association; the Irish Society for Autistic Children; and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute Ireland. This is truly transformational giving.

Recent research points to huge potential, not just from the super-wealthy Irish to engage in philanthropy. ‘Legacies for Good’, a report by economist Jim O’Leary, has estimated that the total wealth transfer in Ireland from 2017 to 2036 could range conservatively from €122billion to €185billion. During January 2020 alone we have seen significant estate values in wills reported in this paper, totalling over €100m, the highest being almost €18m, and about 30 others of €1m or more. If people left even 1% to charity in each estate, monies left to charity in January alone from these few wills would equate to €1m.

The UK’s Ambassador for Philanthropy, Dame Stephanie Shirley, once the 11th wealthiestwoman in Britain has given away £69 million and managed, as a result, to get herself off the UK’s wealth list. She has spoken regularly of the joy that philanthropy has given her, something often repeated by those who give their money away well and wisely.

With Ireland booming and people being more thoughtful about their wealth, we could be on the cusp of a dramatic increase in philanthropy here over the next decade.

Niall O’Sullivan is a philanthropy adviser, fundraising consultant, mentor and coach. He helps individuals and families better explore their philanthropy possibilities at the early stages of their philanthropy journey. More information is available at or he can be contacted at info@

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