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The year that just ended was a good one for huge charitable gifts, thanks in part to Warren Buffett. The Berkshire Hathaway chairman's combined $3.09 billion pledge to his children's charitable foundations tops The Chronicle of Philanthropy's list of 10 largest charitable gifts announced by individuals in 2012.

The list, released in early January by the trade publication for nonprofits, includes 15 gifts, pledges or bequests totaling a whopping $5.1 billion, more than any year since the $8 billion total in 2008. (A number of gifts were tied at the same dollar amount; that's why a list of 10 biggest gifts has five extra entries.) In late August, in honor of his 82nd birthday, Buffett pledged $1.03 billion each to the charitable foundations run by his three children.

If you take away the biggest gift, the list isn't quite as impressive, says Stacy Palmer, the editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. "If you take Buffett's gift out, the total is less than last year," Palmer explains (the 2011 total was $2.6 billion). She isn't belittling Buffett's generosity, but she adds that he has given so much to charity already that it's not really "new" philanthropy. Forbes calculates that the Oracle of Omaha has already donated at least $9.5 billion in shares of Berkshire Hathaway to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That's in addition to the latest $3 billion pledge to his children's foundations.

Some of the other gifts near the top of the list were announced in the past month. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disclosed his nearly $500 million gift to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation on his Facebook page on Dec. 18. Billionaire publisher and real estate tycoon Mortimer Zuckerman pledged $200 million to Columbia University's Mind Brain Behavior Institute; that donation was also announced in mid-December.

Another big supporter of brain research is Microsoft co-founder and billionaire investor Paul Allen. His $300 million pledge to his Allen Institute for Brain Science is the third-largest sum announced in 2012. (Microsoft is the publisher of MSN Money.)

Matthew Herper spent time talking with Allen and some of the scientists at the Allen Institute a few months ago; you can read the article on Forbes.com.

Can charitable gifts be too big? Not exactly, says The Chronicle of Philanthropy's Palmer, but she acknowledged that it is difficult to give away large sums of money effectively. "I think that's why we're seeing more giving to community foundations," Palmer says. "People have realized that it's hard to figure out the smartest way to give."

Community foundations often have a better perspective on which nonprofits are really in need, and, in some cases, which are the most effective. In addition to Zuckerberg's gift to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, former movie producer and insurance entrepreneur David Gundlach (one of just two non-billionaires to make the Chronicle of Philanthropy list) left a $140 million bequest in 2012 to the Elkhart County Community Foundation in his hometown of Elkhart, Ind. Gundlach's pledge was the sixth-largest announced in 2012.

Public institutions like universities and parks were also recipients of some of the biggest gifts of 2012. Billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penelope, announced a $125 million pledge to Oregon Health & Science University for a cardiovascular institute. Music and movie mogul David Geffen pledged $100 million to UCLA in mid-December for scholarships for medical students. And in October, hedge fund manager John Paulson and his wife, Jenny, pledged $100 million to New York's Central Park Conservancy.

In contrast to big gifts from billionaires and multimillionaires, charitable donations from the American public in 2012 are likely to remain unchanged from 2011, Palmer said. That's based on a study The Chronicle of Philanthropy did of the 400 U.S. charities that raised the most money in 2011.

Here is The Chronicle of Philanthropy's list of the largest gifts, pledges or bequests announced in 2012. All except David Gundlach and Fred Fields (both of whom are deceased) are members of the Forbes 400 list and the Forbes World's Billionaires list:

  • Warren Buffett: $3.09 billion pledge ($1.03 billion to each of his three children's charitable foundations).
  • Mark Zuckerberg: $498 million gift to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation for education and health.
  • Paul Allen: $300 million pledge to the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
  • Mortimer Zuckerman: $200 million pledge to Columbia University's Mind Brain Behavior Institute.
  • Fred Fields (former head of Coe Manufacturing): $150 million bequest to the Oregon Community Foundation, to support arts and education (Fields did not appear on Forbes list of the 400 Richest Americans).
  • Carl Icahn: $150 million pledge to Mount Sinai School of Medicine, to support research.
  • David Gundlach (former insurance executive and movie producer): $140 million bequest to Elkhart County Community Foundation.
  • Phil Knight and his wife, Penelope: $125 million pledge to Oregon Health & Science University, for a cardiovascular institute.
  • Michael Moritz and his wife, Harriet Heyman: $116.4 million pledge to University of Oxford, for undergraduate scholarships.
  • David Geffen: $100 million pledge to UCLA Medical School, for scholarships.
  • John Paulson and his wife, Jenny: $100 million pledge to New York's Central Park Conservancy.
  • David Koch: $60 million pledge to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • James Simons: $60 million pledge to University of California, Berkeley for a new computing center.

Note: The Chronicle of Philanthropy list does not include gifts of artwork or other noncash gifts or items from anonymous donors.

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