Howard Ahmanson Sr. was a pioneer in California’s postwar savings and loan industry, financing much of the state’s housing boom in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. He left his estate split between the Ahmanson Foundation and his son, who originally rebelled against the windfall. Later, Howard Ahmanson Jr. decided to use what he had to help others, and now through his Fieldstead and Company and other outlets he donates roughly half his trust fund income. His giving goes to both philanthropic and political projects, sometimes bringing criticism, but he remains soft-spoken and avoids the press. He and his wife, a former newspaper reporter from Iowa, live in Orange County, California, from which they oversee their diverse projects.
PHILANTHROPY: How did you become interested in philanthropy?
MR. AHMANSON: From two angles. First, my father told me I did not have to go into his business, but I did have to go into the Ahmanson Foundation. I didn’t know what understanding of philanthropy he had; he was experimenting on a few ideas beyond the art museum sort of thing at the time he died, at 61. I still sit on the Ahmanson Foundation board in addition to my personal giving.
Second, when I was 23, I became a Christian, although for a long time I only tithed—that is, donated ten percent—off a small allowance of $500 a month that I pretended to live on. After several years I eventually came to the conviction that I needed to tithe on what my real trust income was. I was 28 at that point, and it took me some time to determine where my interests were; they turned out to be largely in the relationship between Christianity and culture, and to a lesser extent family and religious liberty issues, which we’re heavily involved in.
PHILANTHROPY: How have your religious beliefs influenced your philanthropy?
MR. AHMANSON: They make it an obligation. They also mean I have to be concerned with the whole world, as well as my own community. We do give to the rescue mission, and other women’s and children’s charities in Orange County, California, where I live. And we’ve made a few donations to the Pacific symphony because that’s the one art form I have an understanding of. I’m not so much an expert on painting or sculpture.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve written extensively on those you call “rich kids.” Could you explain the difference between rich kids as donors and self-made businessmen as donors?
MR. AHMANSON: The most distinctive, least understood fact about rich kids is precisely that we are not “successful people.” Our culture tends to assume that all wealthy people are successful professionals and executives. And older. The self-made person looks in the mirror and says, “My wealth comes from my superior talent,” and therefore successful people get to think they’re better than other people. Whereas inheritors are continually told they are not better than anyone else.
Our skills and experience are very different from those of successful businessmen. But society tends to want to attribute the same skills to all rich people and put us on boards, because it assumes we all have certain management skills. It also assumes we have other rich friends whose relationships we can exploit for the cause. Rich kids are normally outraged at being asked to do such a thing. For one thing, we may not have any rich friends. For another, that anyone should be exploited by his friends for money is exactly what we’ve spent our lives trying to avoid. Rich kids will balk at doing to others what they would not have others do to them. Most business people, however, are used to having “business relationships” with others, based on mutually doing each other favors, contributing to each other’s favorite causes and politicians, etc. This shocks us; we want to separate who we are and our money, and we do not know how to handle this kind of mutual back-scratching.
On the other hand, because we don’t have to please others for a living, in philanthropy we can follow our own agendas, whereas people who are upwardly mobile often are followers of their crowd.
PHILANTHROPY: Do you have an opinion on how much money the wealthy should give away?
MR. AHMANSON: I think that the tithe applies to all. Philanthropy is for everyone, not just the rich, at least for everyone not in need of receiving philanthropy. So the non-poor should be giving away 10 to 15 percent. The wealthy can afford to be more generous than that, but I would not make any suggestions. As [U.S. News columnist] Michael Barone once pointed out in a column, “the operating definition of the rich in American politics is ‘not me.’” That is, we have the notion that the rich are some shadowy group of folks who exist so the rest of us can be spared the burden of contributing to the community through either philanthropy or taxes. Much “soak the rich” talk, then, is based less on envy and hatred of the rich than on fantasy and irresponsibility. But I don’t want to live in a nation where the terms of civil society are decided by the rich. I want to live in a country where they are decided by all because everybody gives.
PHILANTHROPY: What kind of education would you recommend for people going into philanthropy?
MR. AHMANSON: I would recommend a classical education of the Great Books sort. That may not be much use for anything else now, but it would be a great use for philanthropy. That was not quite the education I had, though I’d like to read thinkers like Aristotle and Plato now and hope I have time to do so before I die. Philanthropists also need some knowledge of how money works in organizations.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you try to teach your son about giving and how do you try to teach him?
MR. AHMANSON: We haven’t done a lot yet; he’s only 14. We do deliberately set aside a tithe money. Right now he just drops it in the collection plate. We have a day in our church where we visit a rescue mission, the Dream Center in L.A., and things like that. I hope he catches some kind of vision for that. He has strong political opinions, but we’re not pushing him to donate to candidates yet.
PHILANTHROPY: Your wife once said of you, “He has a deep empathy for the poor on the level of wanting them to help themselves and not be patronized, because he was patronized.” Could you elaborate on that?
MR. AHMANSON: Yes. In part this involves my having Tourette’s syndrome; my father may not have thought that I had the capability of learning certain personal skills. I’m not sure exactly when I figured it out, but I figured out fairly early that it’s dangerous just to give people money because you feel sorry for them.
PHILANTHROPY: What are some of the most difficult lessons you’ve learned in a lifetime of giving?
MR. AHMANSON: There are some things you can only learn the hard way. First of all, if you dump a lot money on an organization at one time, you’re likely to kill it because its expense base will grow, and unless you keep dumping money into the organization forever, it will die. I could ruin most anyone by giving him a million dollars and never giving him anymore, because after he runs out of money he will be poorer than he ever was before; the same applies to organizations. So I had to work to suppress my ego: I am no one’s savior. I am not the lottery. I am not anybody’s windfall.
A somewhat harder lesson is that you can’t make an organization do something it really doesn’t want to do. The only way you can do that is literally to have somebody sit in their office all the time, because the moment the check clears, the college, say, is going to do things the way it wants to. If you want something to be done a certain way, you must look for an organization already going in the direction you want.
PHILANTHROPY: You and your wife, Roberta, are both deeply involved in your projects. Tell us what husband-and-wife philanthropy is like?
MR. AHMANSON: My wife is discerning, and she has strong opinions. She sees many things I don’t see. She also has her own projects. The hotel I am staying in right now is one of them. We bought this hotel in her old hometown, Perry, Iowa, and rehabilitated it. Nearby she wants to build—and I have to look for money from other sources for—a Center for the American Small Town. She’s already taken over the old Carnegie Library here in Perry. We bought it from Iowa State University and turned it into a record center; one of Roberta’s friends has been interviewing the older people in town to get stories about the immigrant experience in relation to the midwestern small town and its contribution to the country.
PHILANTHROPY: Are there types of giving that you no longer engage in?
MR. AHMANSON: The one area that I’ve not done a lot in is medical research, because other people will do that. Currently my biggest interest, although it’s not an expensive one, is somewhat related to the project here in Perry. I’ve been working with Claremont Institute in California on the function and authority of local government. Conservatives are always talking about how big the federal government should be, but they never have a sufficient vision of how big or authoritative local government should be.
PHILANTHROPY: You give to both traditional philosophic recipients and political causes.
MR. AHMANSON: I used to flatter myself that I was the only donor who thought of politics as an extension of philanthropy by other means, but I discovered a few others think that way. I’ve tried to slow down the process of political giving; the politicians would prefer to accelerate the whole decision-making process so it can take place in a couple of minutes on the telephone, but I won’t do that. That’s how politicians are accustomed to dealing with most people, at least those who want something from the government. The decision-making process for the two types of giving is very different, and I don’t think political donations can be compared to philanthropy.
PHILANTHROPY: Why is it relatively rare for a donor to give substantially in both arenas?
MR. AHMANSON: I think largely because most donors have put the majority of their funds in a foundation, and once the money is parked in a foundation, that’s the end of it. It can only go to the philanthropic sector. If donors want to pursue a political agenda, it must be independent of that.
PHILANTHROPY: Why are you skeptical of perpetual foundations?
MR. AHMANSON: Because I think the “new class” will take a foundation over within two generations. In fact, I’d like to see the repeal of the 1913 law that permits foundations to exist in perpetuity.
PHILANTHROPY: Are there specific grantees over the years of which you are especially proud?
MR. AHMANSON: Our biggest project outside of Iowa is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, a project we are cooperating with Drew University on. The commentary involves compiling books of the best biblical commentaries produced before A.D. 750, in order to find out how early Christians read Scripture, rather than looking through purely 21st-century glasses.
Then there is the Summer Institute of Journalism, which was Roberta’s idea. She thinks Christian journalists have not been encouraged to work in secular media, and on the other hand, religion is not well reported. Ayatollah Khomeni came as a surprise to Western journalists. So the Institute sends college students to Washington, D.C., for a month of contact with the national media.
I’m also proud of Class Act, where we supported the Pacific symphony in its outreach to schools.
PHILANTHROPY: How well does someone need to understand the life of the poor in order to be able to help the poor?
MR. AHMANSON: That’s a difficult question. Since I don’t know the life of the poor all that well, I try to give through agencies that know the life of the poor. I never had to struggle for a living, but there was a period when I tried to take the bus and otherwise experience inconveniences. It might be worth someone spending a few years doing without a credit card to see what it is like, or living in a less expensive part of town just to see what it is like—and some bourgeois parents would add, “So you would know why we work hard so you don’t have to do that.”
PHILANTHROPY: What are the greatest challenges the philanthropic sector faces?
MR. AHMANSON:A lot of the money is probably going to get stuck in permanent foundations, which then will be taken over by the new class. Rich kids have problems, but if you eliminate us entirely you may be in danger of having only new-class types in control. If every person who has money is a “successful person,” you will have lots of people who are very susceptible to those who flatter their ego. Maybe I exaggerate that, but it is a problem.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you mean by the “new class”?
MR. AHMANSON: I mean the sort of professional people who tend to work at foundations. A lot of them are similar to journalists in outlook. They may not be as liberal as they used to be, but I think of the kind of people who ended up running the Ford Foundation, who were creating models of assistance hoping the government would take over.
These people think the private sector should set up models, but most of the actual work of philanthropy should be done by tax dollars in the end. That’s a bad idea because people don’t like to pay taxes, especially for programs outside the main functions of government, and will become less sympathetic to the poor if they have to pay tax money to them.