The Empire Strikes Back: New York philanthropy roars back from the recession

New York City Postcard

The Chronicle of Philanthropy
By Drew Lindsay

Poor New York City. About five years ago, the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg planted the flag of Silicon Valley philanthropy just across the Hudson River with his $100 million gift to Newark, N.J., schools. Ever since, the media and opinion leaders have obsessed over the “new new thing” that tech billionaires represent. Meanwhile, New York, with its black-tie galas and gilded naming opportunities, has begun to look old and frumpy, a dowager clinging to past glory.

A New York Times story last fall laid bare the tensions between the upstarts out West and the establishment back East. It found in Silicon Valley “pious disdain for Wall Street’s showy, status-seeking ways of giving.” Among the Californians quoted, Emmett Carson, head of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, threw down the most direct challenge, saying, “West Coast philanthropy is not influenced by East Coast pronouncements.”

Lost in this cross-country rivalry is a remarkable story out of New York. Even as Silicon Valley has ascended, giving in the traditional epicenter of American philanthropy has boomed. Consider the evidence:

From 2010 to 2012, New Yorkers made only four gifts equal to or greater than Mr. Zuckerberg’s Newark donation. But in the past three years, they have rung the nine-figure bell at least 14 times.

Gifts of $5 million or more by Gotham-area residents totaled $4.1 billion in the past three years — up from $2.3 billion from 2010 to 2012, according to The Chronicle’s database of publicly announced gifts.

New York charities are setting new fundraising highs. The Robin Hood Foundation and the UJA-Federation of New York each brought in record hauls from their annual galas last year. A Columbia University campaign closed in 2013 at $6.1 billion — an Ivy League record until Harvard bested it recently.

Outside of the public eye, many philanthropists are socking away cash for doing good after relatively quiet years. Notably, Ray Dalio, who manages one of the world’s largest hedge funds, has poured more than $750 million into his family foundation in the past four years. As of 2013 (the latest year data is available), assets in New York-area foundations had nearly returned to their inflation-adjusted 2007 peak of $212 billion, according to the Foundation Center.

In short, Big Apple philanthropy is back and, for some organizations, stronger than ever, particularly when it comes to big gifts. Columbia, for instance, is averaging better than 100 gifts of $1 million each year — even more than it did in the run-up to the recession.

The president of the Robin Hood Foundation, Reynold Levy, is a Brooklyn native who’s led Lincoln Center and other major New York nonprofit institutions for decades. He says he’s never seen a time like this. Every part of the nonprofit world can point to major institutions that are financially robust and assembling big plans for growth. “You are talking to an energized, pumped-up guy,” he says.

More Than Wall Street

New York’s resurgent philanthropy obviously owes much to the improved economy and stock market, despite the 2015 dips in the major indices. Wall Street is paying healthy bonuses, and hedge funds — a reliable generator of megawealth — are opening at a faster clip than before the recession, despite punishing numbers for some brand-name firms last year. “You’ll hear about someone making a big gift, and it’s often a hedge-fund person you’ve never heard of,” says Donald Fellows, president of Marts & Lundy, a consulting firm with headquarters outside Manhattan.

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