April 2, 2013

How Bernie Marcus Adapted His Philanthropy Strategy to Build Awareness for Autism

By: The Bridgespan Group
Bernie-Marcus-198x135.jpgFor many philanthropists, the skills they used to create success in business play a large role in their philanthropy. Such is the case for philanthropist and Co-Founder of The Home Depot Bernie Marcus.

The start of a philanthropic journey

Marcus began his philanthropy while he was still building The Home Depot into the world's largest home-improvement retailer. When a young employee shared that he'd been diagnosed with cancer and had, at most, a few months to live, Marcus didn’t hesitate—refusing to accept this death sentence, Marcus connected the employee to City of Hope, a cancer treatment center. The employee lived, and Marcus experienced a turning point in his 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."

Adapting for philanthropic growth
  Achieving big results in philanthropy takes an adaptive strategy, and Marcus's philanthropy serves as a vivid illustration of this principle. When he started the Marcus Autism Center, which he began in response to the anguish of another employee who was the mother of an autistic child, he gathered fellow philanthropists and the best minds in medicine to understand autism and treat children with the disorder. The need for the center's work was tremendous, particularly since caring for a child with autism is extremely expensive. "We just got inundated; I was carrying this by myself—the state didn’t help us, the federal government didn’t help us," he says. Although the center was doing good work, continuing on in that same way was financially unsustainable. "One day I realized that the reason it wasn’t working was because people didn’t understand autism.” In the effort to spread awareness and thereby increase funds for research and treatment, Marcus went on to recruit philanthropists Bob and Suzanne Wright to start Autism Speaks. “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.”

"Now, my lesson to philanthropy is...you have to put your resources, which is not only money, but you have to put your mind into it," he says. "If it’s something that’s desperately needed, then you have to continue your philanthropy."

Bernie Marcus’s Key Messages for Other Donors

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