Since its founding in 1959, the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has invested in the poor, not because its leaders pity them, but because they believe in the power of poor people’s natural assets and abilities to lift themselves out of poverty.
Donn Weinberg, a foundation vice president and a trustee, didn’t always believe that this approach made sense. “I used to be a liberal,” he tells Philanthropy, “but realized my earlier views, though idealistic, were naïve. I wasn’t giving poor people enough credit for being able to take control of their own lives, given the proper assistance.”
Though he credits Rush Limbaugh with enlightening him, Weinberg no doubt learned a great deal about poor people’s capacity to excel from learning about the life of Harry Weinberg, Donn’s uncle and the foundation’s founder. Born in 1908, Harry came to Baltimore in 1911 and early in life set his sights on getting ahead. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade and made his fortune in a combination of ventures, including real estate (two-thirds of which is in Hawaii), securities (most of his total portfolio), and city bus systems. Before the 1960s, city bus systems often were owned by local companies, individuals, or business groups. Harry had a vision for how important these systems could become and began buying stock in them. At various points in time, Harry was the principal stockholder in New York’s Fifth Avenue Transit; Honolulu Rapid Transit; Dallas Transit Company, and Scranton Transit Company. By the end of the 1960s, he’d sold his interests to each company’s local government.
In the 44 years since its founding, the foundation’s corpus has grown to its present size of $1.9 billion and pays out some $95 million a year in grants. It maintains principal offices in two cities: Baltimore and Honolulu, Hawaii. Most of the grants are made in the United States to organizations that help the poor elevate themselves. The foundation is an ardent supporter, for example, of STRIVE. Founded in East Harlem in 1985, STRIVE readies hard-to-employ people for the workforce by improving their attitude toward work, while strengthening their job-search skills and providing follow-up assistance. The program has placed some 22,000 people in jobs; some 70 percent are still employed after two years. Among the many other organizations supported by the foundation are the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, Operation HOPE, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, and The Philanthropy Roundtable itself.
One-fourth of the foundation’s grants each year go to Jewish causes. Working through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an intermediary that identifies model programs that strengthen and sustain Jewish communities in Israel and the former Soviet Union, the foundation has funded programs to assist the poor in Israel and in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and some other former Soviet Union republics.
The Weinberg Foundation is set up as a perpetual foundation. “My own view on perpetuity,” says Donn Weinberg, “is that it should be up to the person who established the foundation. Harry Weinberg wanted a perpetual foundation.” One immediate challenge the foundation faces is to write a history of Harry Weinberg so that there is an institutional history of who he was and what his expectations and beliefs were. This will help ensure that the foundation stays the course.
In joining The Roundtable, Donn says he is looking “to learn from fellow funders of a compatible worldview how most effectively to help our fellow (but disadvantaged) Americans take full advantage of the liberty, personal responsibility, and boundless opportunities that America offers to each of us.” In just one year, he continues, “I have been introduced to an amazing array of funders and thinkers who have opened new vistas of philanthropic opportunity to me and my fellow trustees.”