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Like George Soros, You Can Make Your Philanthropic Bets Pay Off

By Tom Watson on February 28, 2007No Comment

george soros

Like George Soros, You Can Make Your Philanthropic Bets Pay Off
By: Janice Schoos, 2/28/2007


Leading philanthropists know that to achieve significant results, they often have to be willing to tolerate a certain amount of risk. How can they tell which initiatives are worth “gambling” with their philanthropic dollars? This week, Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy hosted a stimulating forum:  Big Ideas, Big Gifts, Big Impact: A Conversation with Today’s Philanthropists.  The featured panelists were Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. Chief Executive Officer of Fletcher Asset Management, Inc. and President of The Fletcher Foundation; Agnes Gund, Founder and a Trustee of Studio in a School Association, a nonprofit organization that supports public school art classes; Evelyn H. Lauder, Senior Corporate Vice President of The Estee Lauder Companies Inc. and Founder and Chairman of The Breast Cancer Research Foundation; and George Soros, chairman of Soros Fund Management, and Founder & Chairman of the Open Society Institute and Soros Foundations Network. 

The panel, moderated by Milano’s Dean Fred P. Hochberg, provided an opportunity for these philanthropists to share their insights into issues and organizations they support both financially and as board members.  Through their board work, they indicated, they continue to learn about the organizations and issues to which they’re most dedicated. Further, they say their greatest satisfaction comes from serving on highly-engaged boards with strong working committees. 
Agnes Gund joined the board of the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 and served as its President from 1991 until 2002.  She sits on numerous boards that represent her interests in art, education, women’s issues, and environmental concerns, including Chess in the Schools, the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and the Fund for Public Schools.  Ms. Gund stated that not enough is asked of foundations today, and that private foundations ought to give away more than the required fivepercent payout to address needs that are most critical now.

Evelyn Lauder, who co-created the pink ribbon that has become the worldwide symbol for breast health and has raised more than $160 million for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, is deeply passionate about the organizations where she serves on the board, including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

George Soros, who has promoted values of democracy and an open society through international philanthropy for nearly 30 years, explained that the way to get the most leverage from a foundation grant is by helping influence how the government spends its money on the issue.  He cited the example of his foundation’s after-school program grants that are contingent upon the grantee raising matching funds from other sources. 

They discussed how foundations evaluate the non-profits seeking support.  Ms. Gund said the secret to evaluating grantees is to stay in touch with them.  A foundation must find out the breadth and depth of the organizations to determine how much they are capable of accomplishing.  Mr. Fletcher equated evaluation of non-profits to evaluation of his other financial investments. 

The main take-away from these experienced philanthropists may be:  No one is smart enough to know with any certainty which organizations or programs will succeed.  To make the best decisions, Mr. Fletcher’s advice to funders is to:  1) bet on good management, 2) “call on your heart,” and 3) remember not to think you know more than you do. If you follow that advice, then most of those bets will pay off.

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