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As tensions over wealth gap rise, the rich are giving more

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Danny Moloshok/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Eli Broad with his wife Edythe Broad: Mr. Broad, No. 49 on The Chronicle of Philanthropy's list of the top 50 philanthropists, concentrates on projects that aim to improve public schools.

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The super rich grew more charitable last year, as public opinion of them became less so.

The 50 donors on The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual list of the most generous Americans gave a median of $61 million in 2011, compared with $39.6 million the previous year. Collectively, the philanthropists in The Chronicle’s rankings lavished $10.4-billion on charitable organizations last year, although a single bequest from the agribusiness heiress Margaret A. Cargill accounted for $6 billion of that total.

The über-wealthy cut those checks against a backdrop of increased scrutiny. The Occupy Wall Street movement and growing concerns about an economic divide have made a target of multimillionaires and billionaires, with mixed implications for their philanthropy. While some fundraisers and philanthropy watchers say the rallying cries of the 99 percent may stir greater generosity, particularly to social-service groups, The Chronicle’s numbers don’t show a shift in how the rich are directing their giving.

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David Callahan, a senior fellow at Demos, a left-leaning think tank, says that, historically, wealthy donors have stepped forward when concerns about inequity have flared.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first great year of philanthropy coincided with the progressive era, in that you had people like Andrew Carnegie and [John D.] Rockefeller recognize that there are big disparities in society and they had themselves been subject to intense criticism,” he says.

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