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//Focused and Strategic: How a Family Tapped Wall Street Wealth for Impact on Mental Health

Focused and Strategic: How a Family Tapped Wall Street Wealth for Impact on Mental Health

 photo: GrAl/shutterstock

photo: GrAl/shutterstock

Nonagenarian Stephen A. Lieber was once dubbed the king of balanced funds by Fortune. The Williams College graduate was in the asset management business for some half a century, associated with firms like Alpine Woods Capital Investors and Evergreen Asset Management Corp, where he was once CEO. His son Samuel currently helms Alpine Woods Capital Investors based in Purchase, New York in Westchester County.

The Lieber family is also philanthropic, establishing the Essel Foundation all the way back in the mid-1960s. The younger Borrego Foundation, launched in the late 1990s, is another charity associated with the family. Both of these foundations fly well under the radar, with no websites, but in even a cursory look at these foundation’s tax returns, one interest stands out—mental health.

Stephen, his late wife Connie, and the Lieber clan, in fact, have supported mental health research for decades. As we’ve reported, this isn’t a very common focus for major donors. Advocates for mental health services and research have long complained that their field is woefully neglected by philanthropy. Reasons for this may include the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues and the desire among donors to focus on challenges that seem more tractable, like finding a cure to cancer.

So what explains the Lieber family’s steady advocacy for mental health through the years? We recently spoke to Stephen Lieber to find out. 

Like many stories of philanthropy, the Lieber family’s work in the mental health space is deeply personal. The Liebers’ daughter dealt with mental illness as a child and had her first schizophrenia break in college. “Among males, [that break] generally occurs around the freshman year in college,” Lieber says. At that time, there was very little information and research about the disorder—one recalls the shock treatment that John Nash endured as depicted in A Beautiful Mind—but the couple wanted to learn everything they could for their daughter so that they could help her.

The couple attended a meeting at Columbia University, and found out that there was a new organization being formed for research—the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression or NARSAD. Connie joined the board and eventually became president, a position she held from 1989 to 2007. NARSAD is now the Brain and Behavioral Research Foundation, which Stephen Leiber chairs. The organization is now the world’s largest private funder of mental health research and has directed some $380 million in grants to over 4,500 scientists. 

As we’ve often reported, the Brain and Behavioral Research Foundation awards grants to support work in basic research, new technologies, and next generation therapies for mental illnesses ranging from anxiety and OCD to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 


Lieber described the couple’s critical relationship with the organization through the years: “Our involvement allowed us to participate in many scientific meetings, and get to know a number of scientists. We found it our primary recreational experience for a couple of decades… an informal postgraduate education, but we learned a lot.” The Leibers became particularly close to Dr. Daniel Weinberger, who was instrumental in focusing research on the role of abnormal brain development as a risk factor for schizophrenia.

Weinberger, once a star at the National Institute of Mental Health, now serves as director and CEO of Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, Maryland whose mission is to “is to translate the understanding of basic genetic and molecular mechanisms of schizophrenia and related developmental brain disorders into clinical advances that change the lives of affected individuals.” The Leibers are among the founders of the institute which iis affiliated with Johns Hopkins University.

According to the World Health Organization, four of the ten most disabling diseases of world societies are psychiatric. “By 2020, the most significant illness in the world will be mental illnesses. The clues are all there, but they haven’t been pulled together adequately," Lieber adds.  

Apart from the Brain and Behavioral Research Foundation and the Lieber Institute, the family digs into mental health issues in other ways, too.  In 1987, the Liebers established an annual award for outstanding achievements in schizophrenia research. To date, two Lieber Prize winners have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. Columbia University, meanwhile, is home to the the Lieber Recovery and Rehabilitation Clinic for Psychotic Disorders and the Lieber Schizophrenic Clinic. And at Williams, the family has supported the undergraduate neuroscience program.

The Essel Foundation and the Borrego Foundation’s grantmaking focuses on continuing to support these various mental health causes. These days, Samuel Leiber helps steer these Lieber charities. The foundations also support community causes, with the Borrego Foundation’s grantmaking being a bit more varied. At Brooklyn College, Connie’s alma mater, she funded scholarships for Russian emigre women. The Liebers have also supported UJA Federation New York, where Connie once served as president.

At the end of the day, though, the story of Lieber family philanthropy is about a sustained and strategic focus on an overlooked funding area. This is often how major donors have the most impact, and Lieber giving is a perfect case study. 

2018-07-23T09:23:53+00:00July 23rd, 2018|Categories: Nonprofit News|