December 18, 2012

A Capstone Career in Philanthropy: Three Guiding Lessons

By: The Bridgespan Group
Philanthropy has long benefited from business leaders who choose philanthropy as the capstone to their careers. Instead of filling their retirement with golf or travel, they use their considerable networks and skills to create successes in the philanthropic arena. Philanthropist Pete Peterson reflects the attitude of many when he says, “Retirement would not be very fulfilling if all I did was play golf and socialize.” Indeed, philanthropists who devote themselves full-time to philanthropy after corporate retirement don't leave behind what made them successful in the for-profit world. Here are four lessons we gleaned from our Conversations with Remarkable Givers interviews that these philanthropists use to create successes.

Why giving the money away was the obvious choice for the Sandlers

Lesson 1: Tackle big issues.

Herb Sandler, former Co-CEO (along with his wife, Marion Sandler, who passed away earlier this year) of Golden West Financial Corporation and World Savings Bank, says he was not content to simply sign checks when he turned to philanthropy full-time in 2006. His goal is to create "philanthropy that affects the lives of large numbers of people and improves society in general." For example, the Sandlers' work seeking out non-asthma scientists to conduct research in the long-stalled asthma field is resulting in important breakthroughs. They've also brought change through ProPublica, their two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning independent newsroom. “Anybody can give money,” he says. “But if you have the ability to improve the output of the organization and to make them more effective, that’s really exciting.”

Eli Broad says philanthropy requires risk-taking

Eli Broad also tackles big issues. When the founder of homebuilder KB Home (formerly Kaufman and Broad Home Corporation) and retirement savings giant SunAmerica turned to philanthropy full-time after retiring in 1999, Broad decided to focus on the K-12 public education system, which he felt was the United States' biggest problem. He and his wife, Edythe, committed $100 million to K-12 education through the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which they used to cultivate strong leadership and governance in education. “I realized if we could help identify or train effective school district leaders, they could give the teachers the necessary resources and support.” To that end, Broad created two new programs—the Broad Superintendents Academy and the Broad Residency in Urban Education—which recruit and prepare exceptional managers and executives who are already bringing positive changes to America’s urban school districts.

A typical retirement was not in the cards for Pete Peterson

Lesson 2: Make big bets.

Pete Peterson, co-founder of the private equity and investment management firm the Blackstone Group and former CEO of financial services firm Lehman Brothers, also set high philanthropic goals that include some serious obstacles. Upon Peterson's retirement in 2007, he devoted himself—and pledged $1 billion—to his lifelong passion to preserve the American dream for future generations by addressing the country’s increasing debt. Peterson established the Peter G. Peterson Foundation with a mission to increase public awareness of this problem, since he believed that the country's leaders would not take action unless the American people were convinced that deficit reduction was a national priority. Peterson made great strides bringing this issue to the attention of the American people, although meaningful progress on fiscal reform has been frustratingly slow. Still, these challenges only highlight the importance of his perseverance and the unique opportunity philanthropists have to call attention to important issues that are otherwise difficult to address.

Bernie Marcus says “philanthropy feeds my engine and keeps me going”

Lesson 3: Focus on adaptive strategy.

Achieving big results in philanthropy usually takes adaptive strategy. For example, when Co-Founder of The Home Depot Bernie Marcus started the Marcus Autism Center, he gathered fellow philanthropists and the best minds in medicine to understand autism and treat children with the disorder. Yet when he found that his effort was not enough, he adapted his approach. “We were doing good, but it wasn’t working economically," he says. "One day I realized that the reason it wasn’t working was because people didn’t understand autism.” Marcus went on to recruit philanthropists Bob and Suzanne Wright to start Autism Speaks in the effort to spread awareness and thereby increase funds for research and treatment. “All of a sudden because of Autism Speaks," he says, "more money is going into autism because it’s become an epidemic in people’s eyes.”

We hope you all have a wonderful holiday season. We'll be back in January with a post to celebrate New Year’s resolutions. We will also spotlight each of our interviewees over the coming months, and post previously unseen video footage for each Giver.

This post is part of our series focusing on Conversations with Remarkable Givers, our collection of one to three-minute video clips drawn from over 50 original and private interviews with philanthropists and foundation leaders. Our initial launch features more than 400 videos, which will evolve into a library of over 1,000 videos, as we take a deeper look at each donor over the coming months.

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