Ask Bernard "Bernie" Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot, why he decided to engage in philanthropy and he will say he never decided. "I just did it—you slide into it. I didn’t sit down one night with my wife, Billi, and say, ‘Maybe we'll become philanthropists.'"
Marcus's slide into philanthropy began while he was still building The Home Depot into the world's largest home-improvement retailer. When a young employee shared that he was dying of cancer, Marcus connected him to City of Hope, a cancer treatment center that ultimately saved the employee's life. "That impact was so important in my life," says Marcus. "I went to [City of Hope] and said ‘I want to join your board.' I had never done anything with philanthropy before…and I didn't have any money, but I worked diligently on that board."
Marcus's early habit of helping to meet the needs of the people around him by giving his time and managerial talent has become a strong theme in his philanthropy. Similarly, but with global consequences, Marcus observed the anguish of another employee, a young mother of an autistic child. To learn more about the disability, he toured the country's top medical centers and met countless families undergoing the same hardship. "Honestly, I didn't sleep for nights," says Marcus. "And I said, ‘Goddamn it, I'm going to do something about this.' And that's how we came about starting the Marcus Autism Center (MAC)—because of a need that I saw." Starting with two trailers in Atlanta, Marcus began to gather the best minds in medicine and other philanthropists to understand and treat the disorder.
In addition to supporting the people in his life, Marcus has also worked to give back to his local community. "We came to Atlanta broke—broke! If the Home Depot didn't make it, I was going to go into bankruptcy. We decided that we wanted to do something for the State of Georgia. We remembered the people that came and saved our lives," shares Marcus. A centerpiece of Bernie and Billi Marcus' efforts to give back to the community is the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which has drawn billions of additional investment to help revitalize a blighted area of the city.
But throughout his philanthropy, whether he is supporting the people and places around him or his religious and cultural communities, Marcus's motivation remains the same: "It's really to save people's lives," he says. "That's the payoff. It's an emotional payoff that I can't explain to people."More Remarkable Givers
Bernie Marcus's Videos
- Autism Speaks: How Bernie Marcus’s persistence built an international voice for autism
- Bernie Marcus’s Georgia Aquarium has had a $4 billion effect on the local economy
- Bernie Marcus explains why he gives while he lives
- Bernie Marcus hates to just write checks, he wants to be an advocate
- Bernie Marcus says “philanthropy feeds my engine and keeps me going”
- Better than diamonds: Bernie Marcus describes philanthropy’s “emotional payoff”
- Fewer investments: Bernie Marcus concentrates his giving to increase its impact
- Finding a focus: Bernie Marcus shares how the “journey of autism” began
- How Bernie Marcus helped turn around Atlanta’s Grady Hospital
- Indulging family interests: Bernie Marcus establishes separate foundations
- “I never was a fish person”: Why Bernie Marcus gave an aquarium to Atlanta
- Matching gifts: Bernie Marcus recruits new donors to double his impact
- No guarantees: Especially in medical research, Bernie Marcus knows any investment involves risk
- No name, please: Bernie Marcus prefers to give anonymously
- Not in perpetuity: Bernie Marcus explains his decision to sunset his foundation
- Not scattershot: Bernie Marcus spent time defining his philanthropic interests early on
- Surrounded by successful people: How Bernie Marcus runs his philanthropy
- The smartest thing you can do: Bernie Marcus advises surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you are
- The turning point: Bernie Marcus committed to philanthropy after seeing its ability to help save lives
- With medical research, Bernie Marcus vets carefully before funding clinical trials
- Working toward a better Israel: Bernie Marcus and the Israel Democracy Institute
- “You can’t always be right”: For Bernie Marcus, failure is a part of the philanthropist’s role