As an inquisitive teenager growing up on a Virginia tobacco farm, J.B. Fuqua discovered that he could borrow business and finance books through the mail from Duke University. Since then, he has donated more than $40 million to Duke while endowing its Fuqua School of Business. The 85-year-old Fuqua never attended college and likes to quip that the endowment is late payment for the overdue books he never paid fines on.
Whether through the grants of his Atlanta-based J.B. Fuqua Foundation or the spontaneous checks he often writes to charities, Fuqua’s philanthropy is connected to causes that have touched his life or captured his imagination. Fuqua says his giving reflects his life’s philosophy that “I am my brother’s keeper.”
Fuqua enjoys making light of his giving style. “It’s a benevolent dictatorship,” he jokes. But of the roughly $140 million he’s given away, none of it was done lightly. Especially when dealing with larger grants, Fuqua says he’s careful to do “due diligence on the particular operation.” For example, before awarding a $4 million international grant to Junior Achievement, a program teaching teenagers economics and entrepreneurship, Fuqua sent his program director to observe J.A. operations in both Russia and Europe.
Fuqua’s philanthropy is the product of a rags-to-riches business career that spans six decades and, like his philanthropy, has had a variety of outlets. In the 1940s, it was radio; in the 1950s, television; and at its peak in the 1970s it was a vast array of interests—ranging from coal mining, to trucking, to movie theaters, to frozen yogurt—creating a Fortune 500 conglomerate with more than $2 billion in revenue.
Fuqua always gave the impression that he was on top, whether conferring with Presidents Johnson and Carter, or establishing a program at Duke to turn Soviet managers into capitalists. Yet in reality, Fuqua was hiding a decades-long battle with severe depression that often left him so low he could barely function. In his 2001 memoir, J.B. Fuqua, he described his depression, which even close business associates didn’t know about.
“By the very nature of the illness, your thoughts slow down and your thinking is clouded by indecision,” writes Fuqua. “You question even routine decisions, doubting your judgment as your thoughts slow to a snail’s pace. You feel as though you have weights on your body and every movement is painful.”
In 1995, in what Fuqua describes as a “last-resort treatment,” he underwent controversial electroconvulsive, or shock, treatment. It worked. The years since have been mostly happy.
The long struggle has inspired Fuqua’s giving.
He gave $2 million to found the Fuqua Center for Late-life Depression at Emory University and followed that with $2 million to endow a chair in late-life depression at Emory’s medical school.
In recent years, Fuqua has been giving more than $10 million annually and says that virtually all of his estate will eventually go to nonprofits. He says he prefers causes and programs “that I can see and feel,” which helps explain the nearly $10 million he has given to the Atlanta Botanical Garden to create a major conservatory and orchid center in honor of his wife, Dottie. He’s also given more than $12 million for state-of-the-art facilities for pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade students attending the Fuqua School in Farmville, Virginia, a few miles from the fields where Fuqua grew up.
Fuqua gave to the private school on two conditions: that it be open to students of all races and creeds, and that it become a national model for rural education. He and his wife also served on the school’s board and still visit annually. “It was not just J.B. Fuqua’s money, but his vision, that provided what is so profound about this school,” says its president, Ruth Murphy.
Fuqua sees his family foundation, worth some $18 million, and personal giving working hand-in-hand and says he “simply replenishes” the foundation when its assets dip. The foundation board consists of his wife and son, Rex, and has a one-person staff, Anne Sterchi.
There has been no determination yet whether the foundation will cease at some point after Fuqua’s death or continue into perpetuity. Even without such a decision, Fuqua says he isn’t worried about donor intent because his son will have a long record of giving to discern what his father meant in trying to become his brother’s keeper.