I’ve written in the past about foundations that “spend down”, and in doing so challenge the presumption of institutional perpetuity that one finds so often in Big Philanthropy. An example of an individual donor making the same sort of commitment comes to us from the late Barbara Jonas, a psychotherapist from Manhattan who died recently at the age of 84.
Jonas and her husband Donald were avid art collectors, and had spent the last four decades assembling an impressive array of Abstract Expressionist works by the likes of Rothko, Louis, and de Kooning. Many such couples would be happy to sit on such a collection indefinitely, passing it on to heirs as a tidy tax shelter. But in 2006 the Jonases were moved to auction off a large portion of their collection, raising more than $44 million and investing the money in a Jewish community fund. “We decided that we wanted to do some things in our lifetime, especially for New York City where we have lived our whole lives,” Mr. Jonas told the Times. “If you die rich, you die poor, really.”
The couple’s giving was motivated by their own particular interests. A former social worker and healthcare professional, Mrs. Jonas wanted to support the education of nurses; Mr. Jonas calls nursing “the most undervalued profession.” By now the Jonas Scholars program has provided funding to more than 1,500 nurses seeking their doctorates. The couple’s giving strategy continued to grow and the newly formed Jonas Philanthropies will spend its sizable endowment on a small list of causes, including blindness research and prenatal environmental health. The group is also good at forging partnerships with established organizations, like Pace University and the Mount Sinai Medical Center, thus ensuring that its giving becomes institutionally contextualized and ever-more impactful.
Here is an encouraging example of focused donor intent and serious commitment to meaningful giving. More broadly, the Jonases provide a good model for the philanthropic impulse as such.