Visionaries of Giving

Illustrations by Montse Bernal

2017 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy recipients are honored for their “awe-inspiring” munificence
Andrew Carnegie

On Tuesday, October 3, 2017, a beautiful fall afternoon, more than 300 distinguished guests — including Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian, Yo-Yo Ma, and Big Bird! — gathered in the Beaux-Arts splendor of The New York Public Library to salute nine remarkable men and women, the recipients of the 2017 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy. In tribute to Andrew Carnegie’s Scottish heritage, a bagpiper led the procession of the medalists into the elegant Celeste Bartos Forum. President Gregorian detailed the exceptional achievements of the “class” of 2017, saluting them as “living examples of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic legacy,” whose munificence is not only “remarkable, but awe-inspiring.”

A portfolio of original portraits of the 2017 medalists — specially commissioned for the Carnegie Reporter — by acclaimed Barcelona-based artist Montse Bernal offers a colorful tribute to these visionary philanthropists.


Mei Hing Chak

Heungkong Charitable Foundation

A self-made businesswoman of extraordinary accomplishments, Mei Hing Chak was born into a humble household in southern China’s Guangdong province. From the launch of a small garment business following high school, she would go on to found the Heungkong Group in 1990, a conglomerate specializing in a wide range of businesses with more than 20,000 employees. Having achieved tremendous success in business, Chak next turned her attention toward an even greater calling, philanthropy. In 2005 she conceived and spearheaded the Heungkong Charitable Foundation — China’s first private philanthropic foundation. Concentrating primarily on education, poverty alleviation, rescue, and disaster relief, the foundation to date has served over two million needy people, funded 1,500 libraries, sent books to over a million students, given loans to women in rural areas, and provided assistance to more than 80,000 disabled children and elderly citizens.

Chak is at the forefront of the growing philanthropic trend in China, where the United Nations estimates donations have tripled since 2010. Her desire to help uplift the people of her country helped inspire her achievements in business, and she sets an example for the next generation of philanthropists in China. It is difficult to predict how many more of those in need will be helped because of her leadership, but it is easy to admire Chak for her foresight and commitment to giving back. For Forbes Asia, she is part of the new vanguard of “heroes of philanthropy” who are making their mark.

“I looked within myself and had a moment of enlightenment. The value of life is actually not measured by the amount of wealth you possess, but by the contribution you make to society, and happiness is the ultimate pursuit in our life and that happiness does not come from material influence, but spiritual contentment.”

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Marguerite and H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest

Lenfest Foundation

Gerry and Marguerite Lenfests’ ties to the community are remarkable, but what is truly unique is their willingness to put their wealth where those deep ties lie. Sometimes described as the founding couple of modern Philadelphia, the Lenfests support the cultural cornerstones of the city, including education, art, music, and museums. Just last year, the couple made a commitment to supporting local journalism like never seen before, donating the Philadelphia Inquirer and its sister publications to a nonprofit media institute. Their hope: that quality journalism will stand the test of time in Philadelphia. However, the scope of the Lenfests’ philanthropy reaches far beyond Pennsylvania, the state they love and have long called home. Columbia University, for example, where Gerry Lenfest attended law school, references the “Lenfest Effect,” a term coined to characterize the transformational nature of the couple’s support for the university.

Perhaps one of the most revealing characteristics of the Lenfests’ generosity and authenticity is their innate modesty. In the early years of their philanthropy, they purchased a large plot of land in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with the intention of building a substantial home on the property. The foundation was excavated and the rebar was being placed when the couple abandoned the project. They instead purchased two adjoining properties to create ChesLen, a sprawling 1,263-acre nature preserve where the public is free to walk dogs, ride horses, and enjoy the unspoiled landscape. Meanwhile, the Lenfests remain in the modest home they purchased in 1966.

And the couple’s proudest accomplishments as philanthropists? Gerry Lenfest puts Philadelphia’s famed Curtis Institute of Music at “the top of this list…. We put a new chapter in their life.”

Gerry: “Looking back, are you sorry we did what we did?”
Marguerite (chuckling): “Some things were a bit much.”
Gerry: “It’s been fun.”
Marguerite: “You do have fun seeing what it’s doing. Isn’t that what I told Warren Buffett?”

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Azim Premji

Azim Premji Foundation

Azim Premji is a true philanthropic pioneer, bringing his generosity to India on a scale literally never seen before in the region. To understand the true scale of his giving, consider a 2015 study of the top 36 philanthropists in India. The Hurun India Philanthropy List reports that Premji contributed eighty percent of the total donations made by those three dozen top philanthropists. He is making a real difference in India.

Premji came of age at the dawn of India’s independence, a period that he has described as one of hope, idealism, and sacrifice for the greater good. The heroes of this era included his mother, a medical doctor by training who spent nearly 50 years funding, building, and running a charitable hospital for children with polio and cerebral palsy. Premji credits his mother as a guide and inspiration for his philanthropy. As a young man he studied engineering at Stanford University. When his father died suddenly in 1966, Premji returned to India and assumed responsibility for the family business. Early on he recognized the potential of technology and gradually shifted the firm’s focus to computers, IT, business process outsourcing, and R&D services. This transformation lifted an already flourishing company to new heights of success.

Reaching a point in his career when others might have rested on their laurels, Premji delved into uncharted territory. His goal: to level some of the dramatic inequities in Indian society. With education as his tool, Premji took aim at the public school system. The Azim Premji Foundation now serves more than three hundred thousand schools with ongoing expansion plans. Thanks to his efforts, some of the country’s poorest and most marginalized citizens are gaining better access to education. Today the foundation’s strategic and comprehensive outreach extends from remote villages to street children in major cities. The aim is to emancipate individuals from economic and social dependence through the advancement and diffusion of knowledge — and in this, Azim Premji is a living embodiment of the philanthropic spirit of Andrew Carnegie.

“When one is showered wealth beyond what one deserves or what one has really earned, I think the question really arises — what does one do with this wealth? I was very guided by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, who had said that wealth is a trusteeship, and it should be used as a trusteeship not as an ownership. Also, I just find there’s a lot of happiness in giving away wealth because it’s the right thing to do.”

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Julian Robertson

Robertson Foundation

Over the course of two decades at Kidder Peabody, Julian Robertson rose steadily through the ranks. Starting as a sales trainee, he eventually became CEO of Kidder’s investment advisory subsidiary, Webster Management Corporation. He cofounded Tiger Management in 1980. Under his leadership it grew exponentially into one of the largest and most successful hedge funds of its time — and Robertson would become known as the “Wizard of Wall Street.” In short, Julian Robertson’s success in the world of finance is remarkable. How he translated that acumen into the world of nonprofits is equally impressive.

A philanthropic visionary, Robertson diversifies his investments — making sure his money is hitting the programs that will maximize impact. And this impact goes beyond dollars and cents: Robertson is seen as a chief recruiter using his influence in the finance world to bring new talent to the world of philanthropy through the Tiger Foundation, which he launched in 1989. The foundation engages some of the top minds of Wall Street to break the cycle of poverty in New York City, supporting time-tested nonprofits serving New York City’s neediest families. The foundation’s board devised a comprehensive strategy to address poverty’s root causes, supporting individuals and their communities and focusing on education, employment, youth and families, and the criminal justice system. The foundation has engendered multiple offshoot philanthropies run by “Tiger Cubs,” the new generation of hedge fund managers who moved up the corporate ladder under Robertson’s tutelage. In 1996, with his wife, Josie, and family, Robertson established a separate philanthropic entity. Like the Tiger Foundation, the Robertson Foundation supports public education in New York City while expanding into other priority areas, including cutting-edge medical research, climate change, and leadership development. Like Andrew Carnegie before him, Julian Robertson has generously committed his expertise, time, and resources to help others to advance as well. He is a true innovator — no matter where his focus lies.

“I don’t think you teach generosity; I think you encourage generosity. People like to help their fellow man and they really love working when they’re doing good for others.”

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Jeff Skoll

Skoll Foundation

In The Gospel of Wealth, Andrew Carnegie urged the wealthy to do “what is practicable now; with the next step possible in our day and generation.” When eBay’s IPO transported Jeff Skoll, the company’s first full-time employee and president, to extraordinary wealth, he began to deliberate the best ways to return his wealth to society. The result is a sophisticated set of organizations that are designed to meet, and are indeed meeting, some of the greatest threats facing mankind and the environment today.

Using his entrepreneurial spirit and technological savvy, Skoll has created a portfolio of philanthropic organizations — the Jeff Skoll Group — that aim to inspire the next generation to tackle the world’s biggest problems. With eBay, Skoll brought access to an online marketplace to anyone with an internet connection. His approach to giving is informed by his business experience: drive impact by investing in a range of efforts that integrate powerful stories and data with ambitious approaches. And his work in the movie industry — producing some of the most important films of this generation — is proving to be a global call to action.

Born in Montreal, Skoll dreamed of becoming a writer, one whose stories would, as he put it, make “the world feel smaller and more interconnected,” just as many of his favorite authors did for him. Even then, however, he understood that a writing career might require support from a “day job.” Also around this time Skoll’s father was diagnosed with cancer, speaking with regret of all that he had yet to experience in life. Fortunately, he recovered, but this trying period for the family made a deep impression on the son, ultimately helping to propel Jeff Skoll toward academic and professional success. His youthful goal of making the world smaller by uniting people through stories has been brilliantly realized across all of the Jeff Skoll Group organizations, with initiatives that tap into individuals’ idealism and encourage activism.

“The world is a vast and complicated place and it needs each of us doing all we can to ensure a brighter tomorrow for future generations. Conrad Hilton said it is the duty of successful people to give back to the society from which their success was derived…. I feel lucky to have been able to pursue my dreams and I hope that my contributions will in some small way lead to a sustainable world of peace and prosperity.”

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Kristine McDivitt Tompkins

Tompkins Conservation

When we think of great conservationists, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, or Jane Goodall may come to mind. Kristine McDivitt Tompkins’s accomplishments in the field may have already surpassed the achievements of those legendary names. For example, under her leadership, in March 2017 Tompkins signed a pledge with Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile, to expand that country’s national park system by approximately 10 million acres. This unprecedented act is the largest land donation ever made by a private individual to a nation. In addition Tompkins has bestowed upon Argentina hundreds of thousands of acres of parklands. These gifts, however, did not come without conditions. Both countries are obligated to actively restore, preserve, and nurture these unspoiled landscapes and their biodiversity in perpetuity. The parklands must also be staffed by a locally sourced workforce to energize the regional economy.

Tompkins has always been connected to the outdoors. Raised most of her life on a ranch in southern California, as a teenager she spent summers working for Chouinard Equipment, a rock climbing equipment company, and later helped its founder grow the operation into Patagonia, the world-renowned outdoor apparel leader and “anti-corporation.” As CEO of Patagonia over a 20-year period, Tompkins was widely credited with the company’s values-driven business practices and activism on behalf of the wilderness it celebrates. In 1993 Tompkins married Douglas Tompkins, founder of The North Face and cofounder of Esprit, companies as well known for their success as for their unconventionality. With a shared passion for the outdoors, the couple embarked upon a crusade that resulted in Tompkins Conservation, a powerhouse of initiatives that lends unwavering commitment to parks and their restoration, along with sustainable agriculture and environmental activism. The world is thankful that the couple was able to bring their unconventional leadership style into the world of philanthropy. In The Gospel of Wealth, Andrew Carnegie places parks in “the very front rank of benefactions,” praising their positive effects on body and spirit. Continuing her late husband’s vision, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins has made immeasurable advances toward the preservation and restoration of the world’s great ecosystems, bringing to life Carnegie’s words more than he could have imagined.

“It is the strength of the Carnegie tradition to represent and celebrate the conservation of the wild, the recognition of the value of all life, the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world…. May we get out of bed every day and protect those things we love and those things we depend on.”

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Shelby White

Leon Levy Foundation

Shelby White’s extraordinary philanthropic accomplishments extend across as wide a range as Andrew Carnegie’s own philanthropy. She is a true icon in New York philanthropic circles for her continued commitment to the regional causes and cultural institutions that have inspired her and so many others for so many years. But her work goes beyond the New York organizations that she is so closely associated with; her interests are multifaceted and the breadth of her giving is ever evolving. And she began early: as a nine-year-old White used a Camp Fire Girls donut sale to raise funds for a neighborhood nursery.

After the death of her first husband in 1969, White began a career in financial journalism; she was already a budding philanthropist, making in her late husband’s memory the first of what would be many significant donations to The New York Botanical Garden. In 1983 White married Leon Levy, the renowned financier and philanthropist. Both believed ardently in the importance of giving, and the couple became a philanthropic force. They shared many passions: education, libraries, museums, archaeology, parks, science, the arts and humanities, human rights, and civil liberties. Following her husband’s death in 2003, White established the Leon Levy Foundation, celebrated for its creativity and innovation and its grantmaking across a wide range of fields, from neuroscience to the humanities. Leon Levy summed up his philosophy of philanthropy concisely: “I tend to take a long view…. I prefer to give money to pursue a concept or idea…. All we can do is try to leave a legacy of good works.” His philosophy continues to underlie the giving of the foundation that bears his name — and we are certain Shelby White’s remarkable achievements at the Leon Levy Foundation would astonish both Leon Levy and Andrew Carnegie.

“I grew up in an immigrant household in the shadow of the Holocaust and we believed deeply in the importance of philanthropy and giving back even when we didn’t have much. That philosophy was an essential part of my married life as well as my childhood. My late husband Leon Levy often quoted, or as it turns out, misquoted Andrew Carnegie about the need, as Leon put it, to die broke…. We believed in planting trees that might not reach fruition in our lifetime. In the end Leon said, again echoing Andrew Carnegie, all we can do is try to leave a legacy of good works.”

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Sir James D. Wolfensohn

Wolfensohn Family Foundation

The life of James Wolfensohn has been characterized by principled leadership, compassion, and generosity. Like Andrew Carnegie before him, as a reformer Wolfensohn takes to heart the maxim that democracy and excellence are not mutually exclusive.

Born in Sydney, Australia, to a loving and cultured family of modest means, Wolfensohn entered high school at the age of 10 and college at 15. He began his career practicing law in Sydney, and returned there to transition into banking after taking an MBA from Harvard. His rise in the field eventually took him to New York, where he was a senior executive at Salomon Brothers before establishing his own investment firm. In 1995 Mr. Wolfensohn was named president of the World Bank, further raising his profile in the international community. He astonished many with a courageous campaign against widespread corruption in both developing and developed countries. Beyond his career in business, Wolfensohn’s philanthropy has benefitted numerous cultural institutions and social causes, both in the United States and abroad. As chairman of Carnegie Hall, he worked with the hall’s president, Isaac Stern, to return the New York City landmark to its former glory, spearheading renovations and securing the financial stability of the world-famous auditorium. He did much the same for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as chairman helping to relieve that institution’s financial woes.

Years later he would remark that he advanced in life without any self-imposed limitations. As a philanthropist, public servant, and humanitarian, Wolfensohn has demonstrated a record of philanthropy that upholds Andrew Carnegie’s lofty vision of giving and service. Furthermore, Wolfensohn is both extremely versatile and undeterred by convention, applying himself in unexpected directions. For example, he took up the cello — becoming proficient in the instrument — at the age of 50.

“There was no question of how much money you have or what can you give, it was what can you do? Will you be able to help? Will you be serious about what you’re doing? And that’s another thing about philanthropy in this country — people can make a contribution with or without money. You have to work on it, you have to believe in it and you have to try and persuade your colleagues and other people that what you’re trying to do really matters. That’s the message I got in this country. The doors are always open and what is needed is someone to walk through them who really wants to do some work.”

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On November 25, 2017, in celebration of Andrew Carnegie’s birthday, the Empire State Building joined in the celebration of the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy by illuminating its iconic tower in the medal’s tartan colors (navy, purple, and yellow). This tribute to the cofounder (with John D. Rockefeller) of modern philanthropy — evocatively captured here by Montse Bernal — marked both Carnegie’s birthday and the continuing celebrations around the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy with its #GivingHero campaign. Happy Birthday, Mr. Carnegie!

For even more on the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy (including videos), visit: medalofphilanthropy.org


After living and working in Turin and Paris, Montse Bernal is back in her hometown of Barcelona, Spain, where she surrounds herself with vintage photographs, old volumes of natural history, printed ephemera, and reproductions of the drawings of Ingres. Focusing on portrait illustration, Bernal views portraiture as a way of rediscovering a person — a way to go beyond what one sees at first glance, a way to go beneath the surface. Montse Bernal Illustration


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