Larry Ellison, one of the richest people in the world, hopes he doesn’t waste his billions.
“Good motives are rarely enough,” Ellison writes on the website of his charitable foundation, which he relaunched a year ago next month. “Good philanthropy needs the ambition to make sustainable change and to not be satisfied with results that fall short.”
The founder of Oracle says he wants to be judged on his results at the Larry Ellison Foundation. But he must also reckon with the fact that for all his success in the world of making money, he has not succeeded in the world of giving it away. He has basked in positive publicity for promises to donate millions and then retracted offers with little explanation; sunk hundreds of millions into moonshot projects like life-extension research before suddenly pulling funding; and made public promises about charitable giving that he appears nowhere close to fulfilling. Nothing has quite worked out.
And so Ellison’s recent decision to reboot what could be a $60 billion charity amounts effectively to a do-over after years of wandering in the philanthropic desert. And it offers him a second chance to make right on a record blemished by erratic cancellations, unusual legal maneuvers, and unmet pledges. A year after its relaunch, however, Ellison’s foundation is doing nothing publicly about the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that has created a crisis moment for philanthropy. His company, meanwhile, has built a coronavirus database that critics see as junk science.
Recode’s review of Ellison’s charitable record reveals how the longtime Oracle CEO has used his charity money to pursue everything from backing idiosyncratic pet projects to smoothing over disputes with angry shareholders.
And the personal leverage Ellison has often gained through his philanthropy challenges the broader theory that exempting the : -wealthy’s donations from taxes actually helps solve the world’s problems. There is new pressure across the world of billionaires to focus their philanthropy to address inequities in society, rather than just pursuing their passions or funding their alma maters.
In some ways, Ellison’s charitable track record is a case study of the shortcomings, loopholes, and lack of accountability that define Big Philanthropy. He has relaunched his mission to focus on more attainable goals rather than unorthodox projects, but the question of how he will be held accountable to his promises this time around persists.
Ellison’s personal representatives declined repeated requests to make him or foundation officials available for interviews about his restart and his checkered past — a reminder that big-money charity is often a black box.
“They’re trying to figure out their strategy,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, whose sister organization Teach for All has received millions of dollars from Ellison in recent years to improve schools around the world. Kopp imagines that Ellison in the future could have as much of an impact on education as Bill Gates has had on public health. “This is an incredibly promising possibility, especially given the world that we live in.”
It is not uncommon for the wealthy to have little idea what exactly they are doing as they venture into the world of philanthropy. But Ellison, who turned 76 last week, has been giving for decades. And the stakes are enormous given the fortune he controls — he has suggested that he could donate as much as $60 billion to the foundation upon his death, a gift that would make it one of the central nerve centers of philanthropy in this century.
But a year after shifting his charity’s focus to back more traditional causes like farming in Africa, schooling in India, and eradicating polio, it’s all still a work in progress for the world’s 11th-richest man.
Ellison has long wrestled aloud with questions about whether he was really accomplishing anything.
“I’ve given away a half-billion dollars, but I’m not particularly proud of that because I can’t point to a single truly great accomplishment yet,” he said back in 2003. “But from a vanity perspective, I’m having a tremendous amount of fun.”
How Ellison used his philanthropy to solve his personal problems
To understand Ellison as a philanthropist now — and the pitfalls his refreshed charity will have to overcome — you have to go back in time. Perhaps no story encapsulates Ellison’s complicated charitable record better than a messy saga involving two elite schools and a bunch of angry Oracle shareholders.
The saga began in 2001 after it emerged that Ellison had sold almost $1 billion worth of stock just before Oracle’s stock tanked due to poor quarterly earnings, raising the allegation that Ellison acted on Oracle’s problems before the market could. Shareholders brought two lawsuits against Ellison, one in Delaware and one in California.
Oracle also set up a special committee to investigate the insider-trading allegations in early 2002 in reaction to the lawsuits. Here’s where Ellison’s philanthropic connections ended up giving him leverage in his personal legal affairs.
Ellison eventually won the Delaware lawsuit, and the Oracle committee ended up clearing him of any wrongdoing. But along the way, the judge voiced the objection that the committee wasn’t exactly independent from Ellison’s influence.
That’s where his charity comes in: Two of the committee’s members were Stanford professors, and Ellison had been publicly floating an unusual competition to give either Stanford or Harvard as much as $170 million.
“Given how public Ellison was about his possible donations it is difficult not to harbor troublesome doubt about whether the [board members] were conscious of the possibility that Ellison was pondering a large contribution to Stanford,” the judge wrote. “By any measure this was a social atmosphere painted in too much vivid Stanford Cardinal red for [the board members] to have reasonably ignored it.”
Ellison ended up choosing Harvard over Stanford; the latter didn’t receive any money. But in due time, the former wouldn’t either.
The shareholders’ companion lawsuit in California, and its resolution four years after it was filed, had even more head-scratching ties to Ellison’s charitable ambitions.
Ellison was able to reach a deal to settle that case in November 2005 by agreeing to make a charitable donation of $100 million on Oracle’s behalf to a cause approved by its board of directors, according to a copy of the settlement agreement, and to pay the plaintiff lawyers’ fees (which Ellison — already then one the world’s richest people — resisted, a source recalls).
That creative agreement to donate $100 million was being hammered out at the exact same time Ellison was nearing the end of his serious talks with Harvard. Ellison planned to give $115 million to establish the Ellison Institute for World Health, with $500 million more to come if all went well.
Ellison’s interviews about the center led to years of headlines about a magnanimous mega-gift. As late as June 2005, Ellison repeatedly told various news outlets that a gift to Harvard was “absolutely going to happen.” Harvard even began hiring some of the 130 people that it expected would work for the center. The deal — the largest gift in Harvard history — was all but signed.
What happened next remains a bit of a mystery. As late as November of that year, Ellison was still promising to donate the money to Harvard. But that fall, just days before the money was set to arrive, his team “began linking” the Harvard gift with the settlement negotiations in that California lawsuit, according to the Financial Times’s reporting at the time.
And suddenly, beginning that same month, Ellison became very hard to reach. In an unexpected twist, in November 2005, Ellison did make the pledge to give the $100 million he’d agreed to donate as part of the California lawsuit settlement. But he didn’t pledge it to Harvard.
Instead, he decided to give the money to his own philanthropy that he controlled, the Ellison Foundation. Both that decision and the Harvard cancellation were announced the very same week in June 2006.
After five years of competition, extensive publicity about the expected donation, and protracted negotiations, Ellison had abruptly backed out of the plan. Harvard officials, strung along for years, didn’t even get a heads-up and had to suddenly lay off some of the hires they had already made.
Ellison’s spokespeople told reporters at the time that the $100 million donation to the Ellison Foundation was “totally unrelated” to the Harvard cancellation, despite the Financial Times reporting. They blamed the changed plan instead on the departure of Harvard president Larry Summers, who had been closely working with Ellison to seal the deal, but had been forced to resign in February 2006 in the aftermath of comments he’d made in early 2005 about women in science that were roundly criticized as sexist.
“The reason I didn’t finish my gift to Harvard was because of the way Larry Summers suddenly left Harvard,” Ellison told a British newspaper. “I lost confidence that that money would be well spent.”
It’s unclear whether the connection between the Harvard gift and the lawsuit was anything more than a very striking coincidence. You’d think that simply following through on the donation to Harvard — money that he had already planned to give away — would be a very convenient way to solve a pesky lawsuit. But perhaps Ellison valued control, and he’d have more control if he kept the money at his own foundation rather than handing it over to a soon-to-be-ousted president. So much so that he was willing to travel to extraordinary lengths to avoid giving any money to a Harvard without Summers.
Whether the money was going to Harvard or to Ellison’s foundation, the saga showed how Ellison was prone to use his charity to solve his personal legal challenges. Legal scholars described this type of arrangement as unheard-of for its size.
“You don’t usually get to buy your way out of liability for something by making a giant donation like that to charity,” Mike Perino, a law professor at St. John’s University, told Recode.
After the Harvard cancellation, Ellison’s spokespeople said that he would make another gift to a major institution “in the next few weeks.” There’s no public evidence that that ever happened.
Where this all ended up is that over the course of those five years, Ellison made more enemies than he did contributions. His credibility was damaged. The whole story shows that, at least in the past, Ellison had no qualms about using his charity as a way to achieve his personal agenda.
Ellison can abruptly change his mind on philanthropic pushes
Ellison has outlined four new priorities for his foundation’s work: conservation, education, food, and health. But his past shows how he can change his mind seemingly overnight — raising the specter that Ellison, even in his 70s, may still have more false starts left in him as he begins a new era of personal giving.
“It could be a rocky boat at times,” as one person close to Ellison described the foundation’s history.
Take the massive amount of money he once gave to life-extension research, which was the core focus of his philanthropic efforts. It’s true that his bid to live longer is not unusual in the world of Silicon Valley billionaires — many of them, including venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Google co-founder Larry Page, have pursued the idea. But the same abruptness and erratic approach that marked the never-materialized college donations also applied to his forays into this medical work.
Ellison, who lost his adoptive mom to cancer when he was in college, has long harbored a special interest in living longer.
“Death has never made any sense to me,” he told one biographer in a 2013 book. “How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?”
And so over the course of 15 years at the beginning of the 21st century he would donate over half of a billion dollars for anti-aging medical research, at a time when the field was seen as fringe science. Ellison defenders say that he helped normalize that part of biomedicine. But detractors argue that Ellison achieved a remarkably poor return on his investment, saying that he failed to invest in truly cutting-edge research, such as efforts to manipulate the aging process.
“It was a spectacular failure when it came to actually moving the needle and hastening the defeat of aging,” said Aubrey de Gray, one of the leading voices in Silicon Valley for longevity research (and who has never been backed by Ellison).
Dick Sprott, who ran Ellison’s foundation for most of that time period, disagreed.
“We were able to fund a lot of things that were not mainstream,” Sprott told Recode. “A lot of the research that got done with [foundation] money made a really strong point and established areas of research that are highly fundable.”
Ellison deeply believed in the cause. At the first meeting of the foundation’s advisory board, the billionaire and a half-dozen scientific experts sat around Ellison’s home overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and reviewed grant proposals, which each member of the advisory board had scored individually and ranked. When the team determined the very last project that would be funded, Ellison looked at the scores of the very next project — the one that barely missed the cutoff — and wondered aloud how the board could possibly draw a distinction between the one that was funded and one that wasn’t. So Ellison, right then and there, decided to kick in a few hundred thousand more dollars to back it, too.
Not everyone has thought that life-extension was a worthy pursuit in an age of scarce research dollars.
“It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer,” said none other than Bill Gates, Ellison’s closest thing to a billionaire enemy, speaking more generally. (Their rivalry extended to philanthropy: A Gates spokesperson once said that comparing the philanthropic efforts of Ellison and Gates was “like comparing a canoe to an aircraft carrier.”)
With the foundation giving away $50 million in some of the later years, it could feel like Ellison’s giving knew no bottom. But then things suddenly changed. One day in 2013, Ellison called up Sprott’s successor to kill the medical foundation’s research. No more new grants.
No one to this day knows exactly what happened. Some argue that the 2008 death of Josh Lederberg, who was effectively a co-founder of his foundation, left Ellison without scientific direction. Others say that the foundation had achieved its goals and Ellison had other pursuits. Observers, though, cannot help but acknowledge Ellison’s competitive nature and note how Page had just that year expressed his desire to spend billions on life-extension research at Calico, a Google offshoot.
This abrupt change of focus reflected a pattern for Ellison: He did something almost identical in 2005, four years after he’d begun spending millions of dollars on researching infectious diseases at places like the Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod.
But then one day, Sprott sat in his office and got a phone call from Ellison
“He was quite clear. We’re going to end this program, and we’re going to end it now,” Sprott recalled. “It was quite abrupt.”
Sprott never got an explanation, but he followed orders: “Not another penny,” the billionaire said.
In the private foundation world, when the donor makes a decision, even ones as abrupt as the ones Ellison has made throughout his history of giving, there’s rarely pushback.
“Decisions are often made by a small number of people. On the one hand, things can turn on a dime and investments can be made in a new area on the basis of a few champions,” one person close to Ellison said about his decision to cut off funds to life-extension research. “The field changed, the times changed, and Larry said, “There are lots of other things that I’d like to do.’”
The hit to the field was sharp at first — the American Federation of Aging Research, for instance, overnight lost about 30 percent of its funding when Ellison stopped issuing new grants, according to Sprott.
“We had a dream about Larry being part of the billionaires club — and I was hoping to talk to him about getting his buddies in the billionaires club to see if they could help,” lamented George Martin, Ellison’s former chief scientific adviser, who has since written him emails to encourage him to once again fund aging research. “But we never had an opportunity to pursue that.”
And with the Ellison Foundation closing off its spigot, thus began Larry Ellison’s trek into the philanthropic wilderness. He’s now in search of something easier to achieve than living forever.
Will Larry Ellison do anything different this time around?
After decades of donations, there appears to be one final promise that Larry Ellison has not yet come close to honoring: the Giving Pledge. That commitment will hang over the final years of Ellison’s life and his foundation’s work in the next few decades.
The Pledge, the brainchild of Gates and Warren Buffett, is a non-binding public promise that the billionaire signatory will give at least half of their money to charity in their lifetime or in their will.
But Ellison, one of the first signatories of the Pledge, appears nowhere close to satisfying the commitment in his lifetime, at least based on public disclosures. His net worth has more than doubled since he signed it in 2010. Ellison has created a trust and is expected to give billions of dollars upon his death to his foundation, which stresses on its new website that he hopes his foundation’s work will “continue into the future.”
Ellison has donated about $500 million to his foundation since its founding in 1997, according to available foundation tax records, a figure that doesn’t include some non-foundation gifts like the $200 million he donated for cancer research at USC in 2016, his largest single donation. Coming up with an aggregate amount of total contributions is difficult for any billionaire, given the byzantine rules and culture of secrecy in the world of philanthropy that make some giving undisclosed, and Ellison’s past public statements about the scale of his giving have often not matched up with legal disclosures.
If the Pledge is based on his net worth today of about $65 billion — and if he hasn’t made massive, undetected donations in the past — Ellison would need to give another $32 billion away if he is to meet the commitment in his lifetime. And in fact, Ellison has gone beyond the mere requirement that he dedicate half of his assets to charity: Ellison’s original Giving Pledge letter said he placed almost all of his money in a trust with “the intent of giving away at least 95% of my wealth to charitable causes,” though he offered no details about how the trust would actually work.
“Until now, I have done this giving quietly — because I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter,” Ellison wrote then, promising to donate “billions more.” “So why am I going public now? Warren Buffett personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be ‘setting an example’ and ‘influencing others’ to give. I hope he’s right.”
And while the Giving Pledge can be honored with a gift prescribed in a will, Ellison told the Wall Street Journal in 2003 that he intended to give away almost all of his money before he died. Ellison is a fitness buff who has never disclosed any serious health problems, so he may have years to go to make good on that long-ago promise, though a gift to his foundation upon his death seems more likely.
That model, though, has been increasingly criticized — especially by tech philanthropists — for not doing enough to get money out the door to solve today’s problems. And that criticism is even more relevant today during the coronavirus crisis, a moment when the need for billionaires to give now has never been more urgent.
When asked this spring what it and Ellison were doing to combat the coronavirus, Ellison’s foundation said his response was being undertaken by Oracle and referred comment to the company. Oracle has developed and donated a database for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to aggregate the track records of various potential treatments for Covid-19, including the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine, which Ellison has promoted to his ally, Donald Trump.
But many epidemiologists have been critical of this database for short-circuiting the experimental design needed to definitively assess a drug’s effectiveness. Leigh Turner at the University of Minnesota told Recode that he felt the Oracle database was a “sideshow” since it didn’t use randomized, controlled trials.
It’s also unclear if any large number of clinicians or patients are actually using this database — HHS spokespeople didn’t return repeated requests for comment when asked for these figures.
Ellison has the team to do more if he would like. The Ellison Foundation now has about 10 advisers, almost all of whom were added in the last two years to form a new “founding team.” The foundation moved its operations from the Bay Area to London and hired a former Ellison biographer, Matthew Symonds — with no formal experience in nonprofits or philanthropy — to run the foundation.
Who a billionaire chooses to run their foundation is important because of the amount of money the person controls, especially once the bankroller dies. If Ellison does give almost all of his $65 billion to philanthropy upon his death, Symonds will become one of the world’s most important people in the nonprofit sector.
Symonds was appointed in 2018 after about four years during which the foundation didn’t have a full-time executive director (although it did make other grants in the meantime to causes such as wildlife conservation and $20 million a year for polio eradication). Symonds that year launched a strategic review of the foundation’s activity and his team began reaching out to other major philanthropists, trying to determine what exactly his benefactor should do with his billions after all the philanthropy’s ups and downs.
One person funded by Ellison said it was their understanding that the foundation talked to hundreds of possible organizations in their particular space before settling on their nonprofit.
“My sense is they very much see themselves as in the early days,” said the person, offered anonymity because the group doesn’t talk publicly about its donors. “They could’ve started shotgunning dozens of grants out there, but I think they have been really thoughtful and selective about what they’re making grants to.”
The foundation says on its website that it nevertheless expects to make mistakes. At some points, Ellison adopts the language of the Effective Altruism movement, the en vogue philanthropic credo that prioritizes using each dollar to do the greatest amount of good and to fund things like malaria nets and disease eradication.
“For me, it is not the size of investment that is the important yardstick, but the size of the return as measured in terms of lives saved or supported,” Ellison writes on the website. “Smart philanthropy is measured by how much good we do for how many people: how many lives did we change, how many children did we educate, how many jobs did we provide?”
Grantees say that they rarely, if ever, have talked with Ellison directly. But they describe his aides, several of whom come from management consulting, as rigorous about data, seeking to measure things like a “social [return on investment.]” They say Ellison is particularly committed to India, where he has heavily backed an education charity called Reach to Teach for more than a decade, and to causes in Africa.
Ellison’s ambitious rhetoric today as he relaunches his charity, though, doesn’t sound all that different from what he was saying two decades ago, which should serve as a reality check on this new bout of billionaire philanthropy.
Ellison’s advisers have long tried to urge him to be less aggressive when it comes to his philanthropic ambitions — along with his other personal extravagances. The billionaire always had a taste for the high life and has not shied away from gaudy displays of wealth, buying superyachts, dozens of luxury homes, tennis tournaments, and one day, potentially, a professional sports franchise.
Back in 2002, Ellison’s accountant, Philip Simon, advised his client against tripling his yearly grant to the Ellison Foundation. He told Ellison to stop spending so much on the homes across the world and yachts across the sea. Just a year later, though, Ellison was throwing his accountant’s caution to the wind, once again telling reporters that he was committed to massive acts of charity. The fact remains that very few people can contain Larry Ellison.
“You can only buy so many boats and planes,” Ellison said in 2003. “And I’ve tried.”
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Correction: This story has been changed to accurately reflect the name of the marine biological institution on Cape Cod that Ellison funded.