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Los Angeles Times Interveiw

Vartan Gregorian

A Fund-Raiser in an Age of New Money Learns to Give in the Old Style

July 18, 1999|Paul Lieberman | Paul Lieberman is a New York-based cultural reporter for The Times

NEW YORK — Waves of millionaires and billionaires are being born every week, it seems, thanks to the Internet, Wall Street and the entertainment industry. This has produced a lot of high living, but also a new generation of philanthropists. In an era when it no longer takes decades at the helm of an industrial empire to amass a major fortune, private foundations are being created by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and the like to rival the great charities of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. And while religious institutions remain a favorite beneficiary of American giving, garnering 40% of donations, these new philanthropies are being viewed as potential saviors for large segments of society: finding alternatives for a struggling education system, for example, or bailing out cutting-edge arts institutions that government agencies no longer fund.

But are the new wealthy really doing their share? Is society getting what it needs? If there is a "new philanthropy," what can it learn from the "old philanthropy"?

Few people have had Vartan Gregorian's inside view of the big-dollars game of giving--and getting. He has served as a legendary fund-raiser for two establishment bastions: He cajoled $1.3 billion in donations while head of the New York Public Library from 1981 to 1989 and as president of Brown University from 1989 to 1997. For the last two years, however, Gregorian, 65, has been handing out money as president of the Carnegie Corp. He has pushed initiatives in teacher education, international peace--through programs in the former Soviet Union--and cooperative efforts with other foundations.

An Armenian born in Iran and educated as an intellectual historian at Stanford, Gregorian is one of the great twinkle-in-the-eye characters on the American scene. A bit rumpled and forever apologizing for his imperfect English, he belies the popular image of the pinstriped institutional CEO. Yet, his disarming laugh, facility with seven languages and storytelling flair have all helped make him effective.

Philanthropy is a family affair in the Gregorian household. His wife, Clare, whom he met four decades ago at Stanford, is president of Literacy Partners, a nonprofit based in New York. The couple, who live in Manhattan, have three grown sons, two working as journalists, the third as a military historian and advisor to the State Department.

Since his library days, Gregorian has been a familiar face in the highest-profile circles of New York, whether lunching with Brooke Astor or having breakfast with Laurence S. Rockefeller to talk about ways to foster dialogue among the races. But Gregorian is equally at home bantering with waiters at a hotel near Carnegie's Madison Avenue headquarters, where he sat down recently over a glass of merlot for a conversation that ranged from the new Silicon Valley billionaires to Hollywood celebrities--and how the latter, in particular, seem reluctant to part with their money.

Question: Is there a new philanthropy different from the old philanthropy?

Answer: Alexis de Tocqueville, in his "Democracy in America," pinpointed something important: that is, volunteerism in America as being completely distinct from Europe and elsewhere. America has made ways of participating in governance, in society, from the PTA to various societies. Then you have philanthropy. He also described a new individualism in America, but his definition and the current one are entirely different. His included a social component. An individual is not only doing what is good for himself, for his gratification, but something that will benefit society in the long run. And the third quality, of course, is the religious impulse. The combination of these three is very American. In that sense, the new philanthropy is the old philanthropy.

Q: But these waves of new billionaires have hardly had time to embrace Carnegie's credo, "Anyone who dies rich, dies disgraced."

A: In 1995, the U.S. had 149 billionaires. There are 42,000 active American foundations, with combined assets of $200 billion. These foundations give $10 billion annually. But the figure that blows my mind is how we're expecting an intergenerational transfer of wealth--of some $2.2 trillion by the year 2010. Some $250 billion a year will be inherited over the next 40 years.

The issue is, how much of this will percolate or go into philanthropy? And in what forms? That's the key issue: They don't know whether to take the past practice as the role model for this. And there are no easy answers.

I'm on Bill Gates' board [of the Gates Learning Foundation]. The latest sums he's given brings it to $11 billion, his foundation, which makes it one of the four or five biggest in the country. At his age. No one has done that in our history. And there are many people in Silicon Valley who can be future Carnegies, Rockefellers and so forth. What are they going to spend it on?

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