“I don’t like to use that hokey phrase ‘compassionate conservative,’” says Leslie Lenkowsky, a former director of research at the Smith Richardson Foundation. “But that’s who Jerry Milbank was—a conservative who was deeply compassionate in his personal life and in his philanthropy.”
Jeremiah Milbank Jr. died on August 7, at the age of 87, in Charlottesville, Virginia. He leaves behind a philanthropic legacy that combined an interest in public policy with a concern for the disabled, as well as a pair of institutions—the JM Foundation and the Milbank Foundation for Rehabilitation—committed to carrying forward his charitable work.
Milbank descended from a long and distinguished line of strategic investors. Shortly before the Civil War, an inventor named Gail Borden discovered a way to condense milk—a development which transformed the dairy industry by making it possible to keep milk fresh for more than a few days. Borden’s financial partner was Milbank’s great-grandfather. The investment created the family fortune, but Milbank descends from a line of men who believed that inherited wealth can be harmful to one’s productivity. He received very little wealth from his father and gave away almost everything he earned himself at his death.
Milbank’s father, Jeremiah Milbank Sr. (1887-1972), led the family’s first efforts in organized philanthropy. As he watched American soldiers return home after the First World War—many wounded and in dire straits—he became involved in Red Cross relief efforts. Recognizing that lots of disabled veterans desperately needed aid, from physical assistance to vocational training, Milbank Sr. founded what today is known as the International Center for the Disabled, in New York. To further these efforts, he established the JM Foundation in 1924.
Milbank Jr. was born in New York City in 1920 and attended Groton School in Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale University in 1942, served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during the Second World War, and received an MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1948. He made a career in private enterprise, yet he was always public-minded.
The younger Milbank took a particular interest in public policy, and became deeply involved with conservative causes. When William F. Buckley Jr. wanted to start a new political magazine in the 1950s, he sought out Milbank: “If memory serves, the very first person I called upon to give a little corporate substance to National Review, Inc., was Jeremiah Milbank Jr.”
Milbank was a leading financier of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign—a story told in A Glorious Disaster, a recent book by J. William Middendorf II—and he eventually served as chairman of the Republican National Finance Committee. He was also a trustee of the Herbert Hoover Foundation, a director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Archives Foundation, and a member of the board of governors for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
His participation in politics convinced him of the importance of public-policy organizations. “He believed that certain public policies would keep America strong,” says Mary Ross, a longtime director at the JM Foundation. As a result, the JM Foundation supported many right-of-center think tanks and organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation and the State Policy Network.
Perhaps Milbank’s most innovative contribution to public policy was the Institute for Educational Affairs. Founded in the late 1970s, IEA was the brainchild of neoconservative writer Irving Kristol and former Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon. Its goal was to persuade corporations to create and support a “counterintelligentsia” of scholars committed to free-market principles. The JM Foundation was a key financial backer, and Milbank was a steady presence at its board meetings. “He was quiet, but when he spoke, everybody listened,” recalls Lenkowsky.
The now-defunct IEA may have failed in its primary task—it never did leverage significant corporate funds—but it would be difficult to describe the organization as a flop. That’s because IEA helped launch three groups of genuinely enduring influence: the Federalist Society, a membership organization of law students, professors, and practicing attorneys; the Collegiate Network, a consortium of student-run campus publications with a conservative and libertarian bent; and The Philanthropy Roundtable.
Milbank didn’t merely instill his values in his foundation’s grants; he also passed them on in his home. “Everyone in the family believes in limited government, economic freedom, and personal responsibility,” says Jeremiah Milbank III, his son and the current president of the JM Foundation. “This is a family foundation, but the next generation must accept the foundation’s mission. We’ve never used the foundation for pet projects.”
The foundation’s purpose is described in a privately published book of family history: “Do what was possible to restore lives blighted by disabilities; do what was possible to rescue youth from social and economic adversity; and do what was possible to keep alight the flame of individual enterprise, self-reliance, and participation in civic affairs.”
Milbank saw his philanthropic interests as a continuation of his father’s. Like his father, Milbank gave generously to the Boys Clubs of America; again like his father, he served in several leadership positions. (In 1990, while Milbank was chairman, the organization was renamed the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.) “He carried out what he understood was his father’s mission, and he advanced it,” says Jack Brauntuch, the former executive director of the JM Foundation.
It is therefore no surprise that he maintained his father’s special concern for the disabled. Following a series of hospital mergers in the 1980s, the International Center for the Disabled returned a portion of its endowment to the JM Foundation. This gave rise to the Milbank Foundation for Rehabilitation, which is headed by Milbank’s nephew, Jeremiah Bogert.
Today, the two foundations each have endowments valued at a little more than $30 million. They share an executive director (Carl Helstrom), a support staff, and office space. The Milbank Foundation focuses on assisting the disabled, with an emphasis on helping people help themselves, while the JM Foundation concentrates on public policy. Occasionally, these interests have converged, such as when the JM Foundation supported groups that successfully promoted the Americans with Disabilities Act, which the first President Bush signed into law in 1990.
“Jerry Milbank was an example of noblesse oblige from a bygone era,” says Chris Olander, who was executive director of the JM Foundation in the 1990s. “He became personally involved in everything from politics to disadvantaged kids.”
Adds Joanne Beyer, who collaborated with the JM Foundation when she was president of the Allegheny and Scaife Family Foundations: “He was charming, generous, gracious, and willing to share his knowledge and insight with others. He understood how to use philanthropy to help people in meaningful and lasting ways.”
Contributing editor John J. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America