New York, January 22:

Top 15 charitable gifts in US last year totalled $35 billion - Nike chairman gave $105m to business school His day job may be balancing the books of the world’s only superpower. But the US treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, wants his legacy to be elsewhere - in prairie conservation, wetland protection and preserving threatened species of birds.

It emerged this week that Paulson, a former chief executive of the Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs, is to give his entire $800m fortune to charity.

His largesse is part of a surge in philanthropy by America’s super-rich, sparked in part by the world’s second richest man, Warren Buffett, who last year set an example by committing 85 per cent of his $45 billion bank balance to the healthcare foundation established by Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Recruited by the Bush administration in July, Paulson, 60, has several attributes in common with his boss in the Oval office - he is a teetotal, non-smoking Christian with a firm belief in the free market and the benefits of rigorous exercise.

He spends his free time bird-watching, fishing and hiking. He spends his holidays admiring wildlife in remote regions such as the Amazonian rainforests and China’s south-western Yunnan province. The Treasury declined to comment on Paulson’s philanthropic endeavours.

But last year, he transferred $100m of his Goldman Sachs shares to a personal charitable vehicle, the Bobolink Foundation, which has made grants to the Rainforest Alliance, American Bird Conservancy and Rails to Trails - a body concerned with turning old railways into footpaths. A former colleague said, “He’s from the American midwest and he’s always been interested in conservation - he and his wife have spent a lot of time, effort and money on it.”

Paulson is not alone. According to the US Chronicle of Philanthropy, the top 15 charitable gifts in America last year amounted to $35 billion (which includes an instalment of Buffett’s gift), eclipsing the $2 billion total in 2005 and the $4.4 billion raised in 2004. There were 14 gifts last year of more than $100m -the highest number ever.

Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, said, “Once you have someone like Warren Buffett giving all his money away while he’s still alive, many others start thinking about doing the same.” Paulson, who has a son and a daughter, has said in the past he “loves his children too much” to give them all his money. Other big recent gifts include a $105m handout by Nike’s chairman, Philip Knight, to a Californian business school and a $100m donation by Oracle computer boss Larry Ellison to medical causes.

On Wall Street, the 73-year-old former chairman of Citigroup, Sandy Weill, declared in an in-house magazine last year that he intended to give away his $1.4 billion as part of a “deal with God”. Arthur Brooks, a philanthropy expert at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship, said, “Income inequality is screaming up in America - not because the poor are getting poorer but because the rich are getting richer, faster. I’d like to think there’s more and more societal pressure for philanthropy.”