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New York’s Magnificent 11 Making Big Bets on Philanthropy

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Fights over immigration. Massive street rallies. Political upheaval. Today’s headlines are reminiscent of New York’s last Gilded Age. In philanthropy, the spirit of that era’s Andrew Carnegie thrives too, despite (and in some cases, because of) today’s stark civic and ideological divides.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, 12 of the top 50 most generous American philanthropists of 2016 were New Yorkers. Gifts of $100 million are no longer considered rare here, and with the number of billionaires rising in New York and around the world, the generosity bar keeps rising, too.

While many of those gifts are going to support New York’s already well-heeled arts, health and education institutions, 2016 also brought an array of audacious new “social change” giving, including funds to fight hunger, support Muslim immigrants and help scientists find new ways to save lives.

“It is really the social causes, the truly audacious efforts at innovation and social change, that are increasingly motivating donors today to give away their wealth,” says Bridgespan Group’s William Foster, whose philanthropy consultancy studies giving trends.

Exemplifying that trend is former mayor Michael Bloomberg. The 75-year-old continues to outgive most other New York philanthropists, as well as the world’s 1,826 billionaires (500 from the United States alone), says Bridgespan.

Bloomberg’s list-topping $600.1 million contribution last year was not just a grand gesture in its size; in the parlance of philanthropy, it was also a “Big Bet”: a nine-figure attempt to create systemic social change. More than half of Bloomberg’s 2016 giving—some $360 million—went to continue a $1 billion pet project to minimize the global hazards of smoking. And Bloomberg is just getting started. “We look for unmet needs that can be addressed with proven solutions,” he tells AVENUE. “We’re attracted to big challenges that haven’t always garnered a lot of philanthropic support, because that’s often where we can do the most good.”

Other NYC billionaires added Big Bets to their big-gift portfolios last year: financier Stephen Cohen gave $325 million to launch the Cohen Veterans Network, to provide mental health services to injured servicemen and women. Math whiz turned hedge fund billionaire James Simons gave $100 million to roll out the Flatiron Institute, a new high-speed computer lab based in lower Manhattan. The lab will allow for 250 advanced science researchers to parse new petabytes of data using next-generation computer models not yet available in corporate or academic labs. Turkish immigrant Hamdi Ulukaya, the Chobani yogurt mogul, gave $65 million to launch his new Tent Foundation to support those working on the front lines of the global refugee crisis, inform policy and improve understanding of refugees.

Big Bet giving isn’t entirely new. New York’s charter school movement, the decades spent fighting for marriage equality and the rise of the conservative political movement over the past 30 years all received philanthropic support spanning decades. What’s new, says Naomi Levine, the former executive director and chair of NYU’s George H. Heyman, Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, is that more people are earning greater wealth at younger ages, spawning new appetites for experimentation and new demands for faster results. And now, with the government threatening to cut back on social services, Levine says, the focus on social change giving will undoubtedly continue, if not increase.

Laurie Tisch, whose Illumination Fund supports social causes, has given more than $100 million over the years, including to her beloved Children’s Museum of Manhattan and also to a variety of smaller social change initiatives to improve access to healthy food in NYC’s lowest-income neighborhoods and to battle food insecurity across the five boroughs. Since last fall’s presidential election, Tisch says, she has also made gifts to Planned Parenthood (“they will almost certainly see efforts from Washington to defund them this year,” she told AVENUE in March). She also just gave to a new United Nations initiative to resettle refugees around the world. “I’m concerned about what’s happening in our country,” Tisch said. Some philanthropy “should be reactive,” she says. “Resources can do stuff and resources can make stuff happen…and these are difficult times.”

For fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, 2016’s political tumult has raised the profile of the women’s causes she already supports—including Vital Voices, a nonprofit founded by seven leaders, including Hillary Clinton, Melanne Verveer and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright to mentor female entrepreneurs. Von Furstenberg’s annual DVF Awards, meanwhile, have given 40 women $50,000 each since 2010 to expand their work to help other women. “We live in a time now when many things are starting to be questioned,” she told AVENUE. “Therefore, I think it is very important to remind all women to fight for their rights and show their strength.”

Will the rise in Big Bet giving continue in the months and years ahead? Bridgespan’s Foster hopes it will, and is certain that it should. “Today’s wealth needs to pursue risk rather than avoid it,” he says. As the face of government and politics changes, “philanthropy needs to be the risk capital for social change,” he says. “Big, concentrated, ambitious bets do and can make a difference. Behind the vast majority of the social causes that any one of us would think of as the most effective and the best, there lies a Big Bet.”


1. Michael Bloomberg

$600.1 million

The former NYC mayor, with an estimated net worth of around $47 billion, is ranked as the sixth richest person in the United States and the eighth richest in the world. Bloomberg Philanthropies is the largest funder of tobacco-control efforts in the developing world. Beyond his $360 million grant in support of global antismoking initiatives, Bloomberg’s 2016 philanthropy included $50 million to former vice president Joe Biden’s “cancer moonshot” initiative to accelerate the fight against cancer and $32 million to a cities initiative that will host management training workshops for up to 300 mayors and 400 staff from around the world over four years. “We look for partners that can help us drive results in the areas we work in: arts, education, environment, public health and government innovation,” Bloomberg tells AVENUE. Most of those partners, he says, are nonprofits and businesses—”but just as often they are governments.” Case in point: Bloomberg’s massive $1 billion effort to control smoking around the world. ”My first big contribution to the fight against tobacco wasn’t a check I wrote,” he says, “but a bill that I signed [as New York’s mayor] banning smoking in bars, restaurants and workplaces.” That action inspired other cities to do the same. Now, his philanthropy is seeking to continue the effort, and his work with other governments and community leaders is having an impact. So far, Bloomberg has helped nearly 40 countries overcome industry opposition to pass comprehensive smoke-free laws. ”People often look to Washington or state capitals for change,” Bloomberg says, “but the truth is that cities are where the real action is. Mayors tend to be pragmatic problem-solvers—and that makes them great partners for us.”


2. Howard and Lottie Marcus

$400 Million

The late Holocaust survivors and early investors in Berkshire Hathaway bequeathed this money to American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel. Lottie died in December, 2015 at the age of 99, and Howard died in 2014 at the age of 104: both were born in pre-Hitler Germany but met at a small New York dinner party, marrying a short time later. Lottie had come to America first, using her fluency in three languages to land a secretarial job on Wall Street. Howard, a dentist, fled Germany in 1933, after Hitler’s election, and came to America from Italy after Mussolini agreed to Hitler’s demand that Italy expel all foreign Jews. Many years later, Howard asked one of Lottie’s colleagues for investment advice, and was introduced to Warren Buffett when he was still a student at Columbia Business School. The couple invested their nest egg with Buffett early on, and amassed a small fortune. Both loved America, friends said, but worried that if a civilized nation like Germany could descend into barbarity, it could happen anywhere. Their 2016 gift is the largest single charitable gift in Israel’s history.


3. Steven A. Cohen

$36.5 Million

The hedge fund billionaire, who long captivated Wall Street—and federal prosecutors—with his high returns while building SAC Capital Advisors, will put $325 million over the next five years into his two recent initiatives to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—the Cohen Veterans Network, a chain of free mental health care clinics for veterans (with one housed at NYU’s Langone Center), and Cohen Ventures Bioscience, a nonprofit research institute in New York. Cohen, who has an $11.1 billion fortune, first became interested in veterans’ mental health issues while serving on the board of the Robin Hood Foundation. He recruited Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the respected former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to head the network’s board. “After 9/11, our veterans rushed to protect us,” Cohen has said. “Now it is our turn to protect them.”


4. Paul Allen

$29.5 Million

Though usually associated with Seattle, Paul Allen has owned a duplex penthouse at 4 East 66th in Manhattan for years—and New Yorkers are happy to claim him as one of theirs.

Four decades after cofounding Microsoft, the 64-year-old Big Bet philanthropist continues to use his software fortune for social good. His new Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, formed to foster bioscience discoveries, puts $100 million behind Allen’s push to “find new ways to do science, new ways to solve problems” and catalyze “a continuous conversation within the scientific community that allows us to remain at the ever-changing frontiers of science and reimagine what is possible,” Allen said during the March 2016 launch. Since then, his Allen Foundation has awarded the first research grants under the Frontiers initiative to Stanford and Tufts Universities.

Big Bet giving is Allen’s hallmark: his social-good interests are diverse, from the $100 million he gave in 2014 to battle Ebola in Africa to putting up funds to coproduce the film Girl Rising, documenting the struggles of girls across the world in their quest to receive an education. In a 2015 profile in the New York Times, Allen said of his giving (which now total more than $2 billion), “It always comes back to what you are passionate about.” Through philanthropy, he added, “you are transmitting your hopes, and keeping them going into the future.”


5. Sanford and Joan Weill

$185 million

Brooklyn-born Sanford, the son of Polish immigrants, is the former head of Citigroup and the longtime chairman of Carnegie Hall. Joan served as the longstanding chair of Manhattan’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and both she and her husband have donated many millions of dollars to NYC’s Weill Cornell Medical College over the years. The couple told Contribute magazine some years ago that when they first became involved in philanthropy, Mr. Weill used to joke that he “took care of the culture and Joan took care of the streets.” But this past year, the couple, who now split their time between the Bay Area and Manhattan, made headlines when they announced they were giving $185 million to launch the Weill Institute for Neurosciences at the University of California at San Francisco. The money will be used to speed up the development of new treatments for Alzheimer’s and other conditions affecting the brain.


6. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg

$150+ million

The power couple and their Diller–von Furstenberg Family Foundation were instrumental some years back in creating the High Line, putting up $35 million to transform an abandoned elevated train bed in the city’s Meatpacking District into what is now one of the city’s leading tourist destinations. Last year, they gave more than $150 million toward Pier 55, their latest public parks project—an ambitious effort to create and build a floating island park and performance space over a dilapidated pier in the Hudson River. Despite some legal holdups last summer, Diller tells AVENUE that the project is back on track. “We began driving piles into the Hudson River about four months ago, and we expect that we will complete sometime in late 2019,” Diller said in that March interview. The media mogul’s backing is more than a grand gesture: Diller, worth $2.8 billion according to Forbes, says his emphasis for the 2.4-acre pier project is to be innovative in every aspect of its creation—from its architectural design to its ambitious programming. “We want to originate and commission work rather than simply be a stop on someone’s tour,” Diller says. His chief interest outside of business has long been public art and the development of public spaces. “I have always greatly admired examples I have seen over my lifetime of Big Bet decisions made 50, 100, 200 plus years ago to do something beautiful for the public good—Columbus Circle, Bethesda Fountain, the whole concept of Central Park,” Diller says. “They were electives. They were not created out of the natural process of government. They were somebody’s initiative, and that impresses me greatly.” Last October, von Furstenberg began a public park project of her own, giving seed money and fundraising leadership to construct a new, $70 million Statue of Liberty Museum on Liberty Island.


7. James H. Simons

$100 Million

In November 2016, the billionaire mathematician turned wealthy hedge fund manager and his wife, Marilyn, announced they would give $100 million to roll out the new Flatiron Institute, a home for 250 research physicists, biologists, data scientists and computational experts to start analyzing big data in cutting-edge ways, to accelerate the possibility of new discoveries in science and new insights into the origins of life on Earth. The Flatiron Institute, which takes up a whole building near Canal Street in Manhattan, enables the Simons Foundation to hire, for the first time, its own data scientists to apply innovative computing techniques often not possible in academia and industry. It’s a big bet on scientific discovery, Simons says. Inside Philanthropy notes that the Simons Foundation is “becoming the most important science funder to hit the scene since the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.” The nonprofit will share much of its research with the public, hold global conferences and work to create a global hub for cutting-edge computational science.


8. David Geffen

$100 Million

The bicoastal Brooklyn native and entertainment industry executive pledged last year to fund an expansion of NYC’s Museum of Modern Art into the tower being constructed immediately to the west of the museum, at 53 West 53rd Street in Manhattan, three floors of which will be named the David Geffen Wing. The fourth-floor suite of galleries in the current museum building will also be expanded. The gift from Geffen, a major collector of postwar art, comes after the former music industry executive gave $100 million to Lincoln Center in 2015 toward the renovation of Avery Fisher Hall, which was renamed David Geffen Hall. Asked to comment on the trend among philanthropists toward more Big Bet giving, the 73-year-old Geffen tells AVENUE that his gift to MoMA comes out of his desire to expand its capacity to inspire new forms of creativity for decades to come. “I’m a great admirer of the museum and the work they do, and I have been going there since I was quite young,” Geffen says. “The way I see it, it’s all about making big bets on the future.”


9. Ronald O. Perelman

$89.9 Million

In June, less than a year after his much-publicized resignation as the chairman of Carnegie Hall’s board, financier Ronald Perelman announced a $75 million gift that officially shifted the focus of his arts philanthropy downtown, to create the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center. Set to open in 2020, the new center will be chaired by Perelman friend and fellow Brooklyn native Barbra Streisand, and when opened will produce and premiere works by emerging and renowned artists in the United States and globally. Perelman, whose estimated net worth is $17.5 billion, stepped down from Carnegie’s board. The hall’s main performance space will continue to be called the Ronald O. Perelman Stage in recognition of his previous donations.


10. Hamdi Ulukaya

$65 Million

The Turkish immigrant and Chobani yogurt mogul has not only pledged the bulk of his estimated $2 billion fortune to help Syrian refugees living in New York and across the country, he’s given them hundreds of jobs at his New York production facility. According to the Financial Times, refugees represent 30 percent of Chobani’s 2,000-person work force. In April 2016, he gave ownership stakes in the company to all of his employees, including factory workers, which the Times estimates could be worth an average of $150,000 each if the company should go public. Ulukaya is also offering paid parental leave to all employees. His interest in easing the Syrian refugee crisis has increased rapidly over the past two and a half years. In October 2014, he pledged to donate $2 million to aid organizations working in the region, beginning with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Rescue Committee, based here in New York. In May 2015, he took the Giving Pledge, promising to give away half of his net worth to refugee assistance causes in his lifetime.


11. Julian Hart Robertson

$41.8 Million

The 84-year-old hedge fund founder’s gift includes $25 million to help the nonprofit charter schools network Success Academy work toward its goal of opening 100 new schools over the next 10 years (it currently has 34). Robertson, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes to be at $3.8 billion, has been a longstanding backer of Success Academy, which admits low-income students by random lottery. Robertson says students rank in the top 1 percent in math and the top 3 percent in reading among all state schools, based on state exams. These results have put Success Academy in high demand across New York State, making expansion necessary. But the schools are not without criticism. In a series of articles in February 2016, the New York Times shed light on troubling discipline tactics employed by some teachers. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration also cut some infrastructure support to Success Academy, attempting, ironically, to repair relationships with teachers unions that were ruptured during the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, 2016’s most generous New Yorker.


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