In order to protect donor intent, Bernie Marcus, Home Depot founder and Atlanta mega-donor, plans to give away 90 percent of his fortune—within 30 years of his death.
I think it’s sound philanthropic practice for a donor who sets up a foundation to make sure that the foundation he creates sunsets within his lifetime or within a short period of a donor’s death. I wrote How Great Philanthropists Failed And How You Can Protect Your Legacy in part because I wanted to warn future donors about the problems that happened when such great donors as Henry Ford, J. Howard Pew, John D. MacArthur, and Andrew Carnegie either left no restrictions on how the foundations they created would award grants or, in the case of Pew, a donor left detailed instructions which his successors ignored.
In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Matt Kempner reports that Bernie Marcus, 90, plans to leave 90 percent of his fortune to the Marcus Foundation when he dies, although he did not give an estimate as to how much money that would be. Kempner notes that Bloomberg says Marcus, who co-founded Home Depot in 1979, is worth $4.53 billion, while Forbes says Marcus is the 109th-richest person in the U.S. with wealth of $5.8 billion. Kempner says that given that Marcus says he has already given away $2 billion, and adding 90 percent of his current wealth would make a total of around $6 billion.
That wealth would make Mr. Marcus Atlanta’s most generous donor; the current leader, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation (created by a CEO of Coca-Cola) has given away $3.9 billion since the 1930s.
But far more important than the amount of money being given away are the views of the man making the gifts. Marcus is a forceful and persuasive champion of donor intent and a foe of perpetual foundations.
The first example of Bernie Marcus’s views is when he and his wife signed the Giving Pledge in 2010 (which, remember, only commits a donor to giving away more than half of his fortune). Marcus stated his views in a personal letter to Warren Buffett.
“As you might remember,” Marcus wrote, “it has always been my belief that leaving enormous wealth for our children does nothing to stimulate their ability to make it on their own. I too believe that all our efforts in creating the wealth that we have would give us a great deal more joy if we were to disperse as much of it within our lifetimes.”
Marcus also wrote that he believed in personal contact with the beneficiaries of his wealth. One of his causes has been supporting autism needs and research, through the creation of the Marcus Autism Center, a division of Children’s Health of Atlanta. Marcus explained that in 2009 he made a site visit to the center and saw a child who “went into total hysteria, e.g. screaming, butting his head against the wall, etc.”
A year later Marcus showed up with an NBC camera crew doing a documentary. The young man, rather than melting down, “came over, sat in my lap, and talked! … I cried, the teachers cried, the cameraman cried, and the parents cried. What a blessing this was to have changed one life and to have had such an impact on a life. I encourage you to always try to see the faces of the recipients you help.”
Marcus’s views on perpetuity are expressed in a series of valuable videos Marcus made for Bridgespan in 2013. In one of the videos, he explains that when he was starting off as a philanthropist, he was raising money for the Shepherd Center, an Atlanta hospital that deals with people who have brain injuries. He went to one foundation asking for $150,000. The foundation’s representative then asked Marcus to wait, convened the board, and announced they were giving a quarter of a million dollars to the hospital.
The reason: the donor who created the foundation died creating a perpetual foundation with no instructions, with control left to his wife and child. His wife died six months after the donor’s death, and the child died six months after that. Control of the foundation rested with associates—his lawyer, his doctor—all of whom hated him. Because they were convinced the donor would never have given to the Shepherd Center, they made sure the hospital got a large check.
“If you don’t sunset, you’re crazy,” Marcus says. “You’ve got to be stupid and dumb to let a foundation go on forever.”
“You want to get the feeling of helping somebody,” Marcus says in this Bridgespan video. “How am I going to get that from the coffin?”
As to what Marcus gives his money for, the best piece on Marcus’s giving is one Andrew Ferguson wrote for Philanthropy Magazine in 2012. Marcus explained that in the late 1990s he was flying home from Israel and saw Georgia governor Roy Barnes on the flight. He said he wanted to make a major gift to Atlanta. Barnes said he could fund a museum or a concert hall. Marcus said he would donate an aquarium.
“I wanted this as a payback to our customers and to our associates,” Marcus said. “I had to ask, ‘What would they enjoy?’ My employees, my associates—they’re not really symphony people. A very small percentage of my customers go to the symphony. But an aquarium—everybody loves an aquarium!”
Marcus donated $250 million and raised $50 million to construct the Georgia Aquarium (“note please, it’s not the Marcus Aquarium,” Ferguson writes), which opened in 2005. The state of Georgia donated no money, but cut red tape to expedite construction. The aquarium is one of the world’s largest and attracted many tourists and their spending power to downtown Atlanta.
Marcus has similar passion for his other projects: supporting Israel, advancing neuroscience, defending the free market. While he has left detailed instructions for the Marcus Foundation, which will spend down no later than 30 years after his death, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he wants to live another decade to work on all the philanthropic projects he has left to do.
“I want to live to be 100 because I want to be in a position to give it away to those things that I really believe in,” Marcus said in a July 2019 interview. “I’ve got all the houses I need. I live very well. My kids are taken care of. Everything I live for now is finding the right things to put my money into and that can give me a rate of return in emotion and doing good things for this world.”