The relief of human suffering.” That’s how Jon Huntsman Sr. describes the purpose of his philanthropy. Having already donated more than a billion dollars of his personal wealth, Huntsman’s philosophy of giving is fairly straightforward. “I believe that all individuals are the products of their upbringing, the trials and tribulations in their lives. I’m no different from anyone else. Where I’ve seen other human beings suffer in my own family, in my own life, that is where I have focused. We donate to the causes that have affected us.”
Huntsman’s fortune was launched when a company he created invented the clamshell container for Big Macs in 1970. In 1982, Huntsman formed the Huntsman Chemical Corporation in Salt Lake City, which grew into a multibillion dollar operation that manufactures many types of industrial plastics and consumer packaging. But while his means have increased, his approach to philanthropy has not changed much since childhood.
Though his parents weren’t active members, Huntsman started tithing to the Mormon Church as a boy. Even as a young man in the Navy he used to give away an extra $50 a month on top of his tithing, aiming it to families who were in trouble. “To me that was a part of life,” he says.
Empathy comes easily to Huntsman. “As a young boy, we were very poor,” he recalls of his childhood in a two-room home in Blackfoot, Idaho. Early on he realized just how important “a hot meal could be.” That has made him a major donor to the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen, run by the Catholic Church in Salt Lake City.
His childhood brought other burdens. “My mother’s difficult relationship with my father gave me a great feeling and sensitivity to abused women and children.” Huntsman and his wife, Karen, support shelters and other programs to protect threatened and neglected family members.
One of the Huntsmans’ nine children has mental impairments. “Through his life,” Huntsman says, “we have learned how difficult it is for such a person to survive in the world without someone caring about you.” The couple gives to programs that help people like their son achieve a degree of independence. And when the Olympics came to Salt Lake City, they contributed $1 million to the Paralympic Games.
The Huntsmans also lost a daughter to a drug overdose. “We have seen the impact of addiction.” They have given accordingly to programs that minister to people snarled in drugs and alcohol, and to their families.
One heavy dose of human suffering that has fallen on Huntsman has been cancer. “My mother died in my arms at a young age,” he recalls. “Her mother died when she was 14.” Huntsman’s father had cancer, and Huntsman himself has battled the disease four times.
The Huntsman Cancer Institute, which the philanthropist willed into existence with gifts of several hundred million dollars, broke ground on a new wing this past summer with his additional help. The $105 million expansion, which will include both clinical and research facilities, will focus on children’s cancers. HCI’s database of 16 million cancer patients—the largest single set of information on people with cancer, including their backgrounds and their outcomes—will help researchers at the new expansion explore the genetic correlates of the disease and develop targeted treatments. HCI researchers are also investigating the genetic mechanisms that help animals such as elephants avoid cancer. About 300 new scientists are being hired as part of the expansion.
Huntsman has signed the Giving Pledge, and he has encouraged billionaire philanthropists to go beyond its promise to donate at least half their wealth—he thinks 80 percent is a better target. Huntsman wonders what it would take to get people to donate more. “Giving money away can be just as difficult for billionaires as for poorer people. It is not about the amount of money as much as their feelings about sharing with their fellow man.” He has found “the amount of money isn’t nearly as important as a cheerful disposition” in helping others.
When he was president of the student body of his high school, Huntsman held a ceremony for the school’s custodians. “I felt bad that no one paid attention to the staff,” he says. He gave them each a new tie. “The underdog has always had a special place in my heart.”
That sometimes includes underdogs to whom he has no personal connection. In 1988 an earthquake devastated Armenia, killing more than 25,000 people. Huntsman led the effort to send over $50 million to help rebuild the country. “We fall in love oftentimes with situations and adversities that we weren’t connected to in any prior way.” Huntsman became deeply impressed with the Armenian people, their long history of suffering, their work ethic, their desire to climb out from one of the worst earthquakes in the history of the world. To a country that he had never visited, for a people he previously knew nothing about, Huntsman became a savior. In the years since, the Huntsman family has made more than 40 trips to the country, building more than 40,000 housing units among other good works. “Once we got started, it was hard to say goodbye.”