The Starr Foundation is one of the grantmakers for biomedical research. Roman Zaiets/shutterstock
The Starr Foundation is one of the grantmakers for biomedical research. Roman Zaiets/shutterstock

With over $1.5 billion in assets, you might expect to hear from the Starr Foundation as we face a global pandemic, record unemployment, and coast-to-coast protests for social justice. Yet this New York-based private foundation has long flown under the radar and that hasn’t changed during these turbulent times. It discourages unsolicited grant applications, avoids media attention, and is not in the news for COVID-19 or increasing its standard grant distribution. But should it be?

Florence Davis, president of the Starr Foundation, said it has received scores of proposals for COVID-related funding from nonprofits across all of their program areas. Some of the requests have been for emergency funding to cover direct response to the pandemic (e.g., emergency food programs); others have been for help in closing revenue gaps created by the shutdown (e.g., from cultural institutions).

But Davis said that the foundation has faced limits in how much it can respond to the coronavirus crisis because of earlier financial decisions.

Bad Timing

“In 2019, we not only paid out grants in excess of our required minimum, but we also added $140 million in multi-year forward commitments for medical research and medical school scholarships,” she said. “This was a big stretch for us, so we had planned on a quiet 2020 in terms of new spending. The pandemic has drastically changed the level of need, but we have already taken on a considerable payout burden, and we are proceeding carefully and deliberately in evaluating new proposals.”

Like many other grantmakers, the Starr Foundation has also struggled to determine how best to respond to a vast and unprecedented crisis. Davis said, “One problem that we have, along with everyone else, is that the situation is very fluid and changes so rapidly that it is hard to evaluate where our scarce financial resources will have the most impact, not only in the short term, but also in the longer term – the effects of the pandemic on every aspect of our lives, in the USA and globally, are not going to disappear anytime soon.”

Davis said that based on current discussions, the foundation is likely to make near-term COVID-related grants mainly to emergency human needs providers. Earlier this year, the foundation made significant multi-year commitments to City Harvest and Citymeals-on-Wheels in late February 2020, based on pre-pandemic proposals, she said. “In both cases, in hindsight, the grants turned out to be important and we intend to honor those commitments in full and on schedule.”

Davis said that with respect to grants relating to recent social unrest, the foundation has engaged in many internal discussions and explorations of how it might respond. “Our general preference is to look for programs that will result in longer-term, durable solutions.”

Big Money, Low Profile

The Starr Foundation was established in 1955 by Cornelius Vander Starr, an insurance executive, who started C.V. Starr & Co. and other companies, which later morphed into the American International Group, Inc. under the leadership of Maurice R. Greenberg. An early supporter of globalization, Mr. Starr established his first insurance venture in Shanghai in 1919 and left his estate to the foundation when he died in 1968 at age 76.

According to Davis, the foundation has exceeded its required payouts every year for more than a decade, and at one point after 2008, that number reached 8 to 10%, which was unsustainable if the foundation were to fulfill Mr. Starr’s long-term philanthropic goals.

In the past 15 years, it has provided wide support for major universities, academic medical centers, and arts and environmental organizations. It has also been one of the top funders of the Harlem Children’s Zone, providing over $500 million in grants to the anti-poverty organization since 2003.

But the Starr foundation is best known for its strong support of biomedical research and backing premier medical institutions in New York City. Weill Cornell Medicine, Starr Cancer Consortium, Rockefeller University and New York Presbyterian Medical Center are among its principal grantees. The foundation has also made $350 million in grants to the Broad Institute, the biomedical research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Millions for Research

Last year, the foundation made a $50 million gift to the Rockefeller University to establish the Maurice R. and Corinne P. Greenberg Center for the Study of Inflammation, Microbiome, and Metabolism, and the Starr Center for Computational and Quantitative Science. The first $25 million funds interdisciplinary, translational research on the digestive system. The second $25 million gift for the Starr Center will apply artificial intelligence, advanced mathematics and computation to large groups of biological and biomedical data.

The foundation also gifted $3 million in 2019 to establish the C.V. Starr Endowed Chair in Pain Management at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, which has a commitment to responsible opioid use. The gift will support enhanced pain management research, program development, and physician education at HSS, ranked as the No. 1 orthopedics hospital in the country by U.S. News and World Report for the 10th year in a row.

One of Mr. Starr’s personal interests was providing scholarships to deserving students. The foundation has endowed C.V. Starr Scholarship Funds and Maurice R. Greenberg Scholarship Funds at more than 150 universities, colleges and select secondary schools around the world. In 2019, the foundation provided the lead gift to establish debt-free education at Weill-Cornell Medicine, joining the trend to allow students to attend medical school and choose their medical specialty without the average $150,000 debt burden upon graduation.

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