Home depot cofounder Bernie Marcus
Home depot cofounder Bernie Marcus

Not too long ago, I spoke with Arthur Blank, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, to learn more about his philanthropy, which supports causes such as stuttering education and research, and children’s health. He also happens to be friendly with former President Jimmy Carter, who even penned his memoir’s foreword.

Then there’s Bernie Marcus, who co-founded Home Depot in 1978 with Blank after they were fired from their jobs at a regional hardware store. Marcus was a top donor to President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and put his support behind him again in 2020, arguing in one Fox News opinion piece that “Throughout his term, Trump has demonstrated real leadership—unbowed by political and elite opinion—that Americans want and deserve from their president.”

Sometimes, multi-billion-dollar business partnerships make strange bedfellows.

In a way, Blank and Marcus are reminiscent of Jim Simons and Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies. Simons’s philanthropy has focused on science research, and he and wife Marilyn are major Democratic donors. Robert Mercer and family, meanwhile, have been big Trump and GOP donors, and fund a litany of conservative think tanks.

As for the Home Depot co-founders, they are both prominent philanthropists in the Atlanta area and beyond. But unlike Mercer, Bernie Marcus’s charitable giving has not, by and large, taken on an ideological quality. Marcus and his wife Billi signed the Giving Pledge in 2010, and have given away over $1 billion to education, hospitals and Jewish causes. Some of the Marcus Foundation’s largest gifts include $75 million for the growth of the Piedmont Heart Institute, $20 million to Jewish Education Project, and a five-year, $38 million grant to University of Colorado Anschutz Medical. His fortune is currently worth $8.7 billion.

But what, exactly, motivates the Marcuses’ philanthropy? How does the Marcus Foundation, which keeps a low profile, operate? And what are the nonagenarian’s plans for his foundation down the line?

It all started in New Jersey, as Marcus explained in our recent interview. “I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in a tenement fourth-floor walk up. We had very little money,” he began.

A humble start and a lean operation

The son of Russian immigrants, Marcus tells me that though he grew up humbly, his mother would always put away money for charity. His mother had a pushke, a Yiddish word for a container for charity, in which money would accumulate and be given away, including to causes in Israel. When Marcus stepped into the role of Home Depot’s first CEO in the 1980s, he also started thinking about deepening his philanthropy, and was driven by these early principles he learned.

Launched in the late 1980s, the Marcus Foundation sports a small staff and has a minimal web presence. “I put a staff together so that we could sit and talk about these things and then follow them through … So it started, really, as a one-man operation that eventually got into what the Marcus Foundation is today.”

Foundation President Jay Kaiman works with a board of about a dozen, and a small staff, and the charity has kept this “lean and mean” structure through the years, even as grantmaking has escalated to the tune of more than $161 million in giving, according to its latest tax filing. Why? Well, Marcus thinks about his lessons from business, and watching Home Depot grow from three stores and 200 associates back in 1979 to some 350,000 associates when he retired in 2002. Today, there are more than 2,200 stores in three countries.

“I believe that as you get bigger, one of the things that creeps in is called bureaucracy. The one thing I didn’t want to have in my philanthropy is bureaucracy… Our philosophy has always been to stay lean and mean. Don’t take on a million projects. Follow those projects that you can do intelligently and have really high-quality people working for you,” Marcus explains.

Foundation leadership takes a proactive approach to finding grantees, going out to where they think needs are and keeping their ears to the ground. Marcus is particularly looking for organizations that have good leadership—including a strong board—a budgeting process, and a goal in mind.

Getting involved early with autism research

Founded by Marcus in 1991, the Marcus Autism Center is now one of the largest autism centers in the country and treats more than 5,500 children each year.

The Marcus Foundation has continued to back the center, including with a $25 million grant in 2019 to reach more patients at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Center for Advanced Pediatrics. This is one interest Marcus and Blank have in common, as they are both keen on supporting large health institutions and then continuing to build out services along the way. Blank recently launched the Arthur M. Blank Center for Stuttering Education and Research at University of Texas at Austin, driven by his own experiences as someone with a stutter.

Marcus tells me he had a private accountant a long time ago who was struggling balancing work with taking care of her young, adopted child, who was dealing with undiagnosed autism. “She explained the difficulties this child was having. I mean, behavioral problems, very serious problems where the child was not able to mix in with other children… and medical doctors couldn’t deal with it, either. Nobody knew what it was. And I got interested. Are there other kids like this?” Marcus says.

He started meeting other kids and families dealing with similar issues, most of whom, back in those days, were not able to be open about their struggles. And as Home Depot was expanding to cities around the country, he ultimately discovered the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, which focuses on improving the lives of children and young adults with pediatric developmental disabilities.

Back in Atlanta, the foundation attempted to model these programs and got into an affiliation with Emory University, first opening just two trailers. “As soon as we opened the doors, whoosh, the flood started,” he said. From there, the program moved to a proper building, with demand even surprising doctors and other medical professionals. And ultimately, the Marcuses launched their center.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the largest pediatric institution in Georgia, acquired the Marcus Center and has continued to build out this work. “We take care of more kids by a multiple of eight than any institution in the world that we’re aware of,” Marcus adds.

Veterans and post-traumatic stress

Backing veterans and their families is another key focus of the Marcus Foundation. As with his autism work, Marcus’ interest in veterans is long-running and dates back to the early days of launching that modest hardware store.

He got involved with the Shepherd Center, a hospital focusing on the medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury and disease, acquired brain injury, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and other neuromuscular problems. The institution puts out a monthly magazine, and Marcus was moved when he read the story of a young soldier suffering from a spinal injury at a VA hospital. Not satisfied with his treatment, his mother got her senators involved and even wrote to the president. But it wasn’t until he found the Shepherd Center that things started to turn around.

“They took the child. And within a very short period of time… he was up and walking with grace. It was like a miracle to me,” Marcus says. “Every patient has three to five people assigned to them. It’s very expensive. And the military wasn’t willing to pay the money.”

Marcus collaborated with Shepherd Center and started Operation Share, pivoting away from spinal cord injury and instead focusing on traumatic brain injury and PTSD, where he felt there was a greater need. This later escalated into the creation of the Marcus Institute for Brain Health at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical, which provides specialty care for military veterans and retired athletes struggling with mild to moderate traumatic brain injuries and changes in psychological health.

“There are people who are the finest product we have in the United States,” he says, referring to those who serve.

One big bet Marcus made on the University of Colorado is that doctors, nurses, firefighters and all civilians paying for these vital mental health services would cover the other 50% of non-paying patients hailing from the military. And Marcus is happy to report that this has held true so far. The program has since expanded to Tulane University, University of Florida, Jacksonville and Jefferson University; UNC Chapel Hill will come aboard soon.

For his 90th birthday, Marcus and his old business partner Blank committed $20 million each to the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network, an organization started by the “Forrest Gump” actor, who many still know as Lieutenant Dan. The gift will fund a national network to provide wellness for veterans and first responders experiencing post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and substance abuse.

Building an actual network and system of support here is rooted in part in the duo’s experience in business. “Now, I will tell you that when I opened Home Depot with Arthur Blank, people used to ask me ‘how many stores do you think you could have?’ And I would say 1,500 and Arthur would go crazy.… Today, we have 2,200 stores and if you ask me where I want to go with this, I want to have a hospital in every major city where veterans are,” he says.

Free enterprise and looking ahead

Some of Marcus’s charitable giving has been on the ideological side. In the 2018 fiscal year, the Marcus Foundation made a $1.5 million grant to Prager University Foundation, the fundraising arm of PragerU, a nonprofit that creates videos on “political, economic and philosophical topics from an American conservative or right-wing perspective.” Past videos have included “Are the Police Racist?” and “There is No Gender Wage Gap.”

The Marcus Foundation’s support of Prager University Foundation has focused on the Job Creators Network, whose Employer to Employee education program focuses on empowering individuals through basic public policy education, partnering with organizations including Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, International Franchise Association and Minority Business Roundtable.

Job Creators Network’s latest efforts focus on helping the economy rebound on the heels of the pandemic. The organization is partnering with doctors to educate the public about how the country can safely reopen.

“There are so many regulations today. It’s so difficult for a small businessman to grow that they needed representation. We thought about, how do we get this group of people together and make them a political force to kind of make sure that Congress, when they pass bills, that the small businesses don’t end up being the last guy on the block. After all, small businesses today represent 70% of the working public,” Marcus says.

Looking ahead, Marcus says that 90% of what he has will eventually go to the Marcus Foundation and his board members will help spend it down. He doesn’t plan on building another Ford or Rockefeller foundation and doesn’t want his charity to exist as a “power play,” as he calls it. (Check out IP’s latest profile of DonorsTrust for more on this concern among conservative donors.)

“My foundation, I’ve given them videos, written documents, and what I think the money should be spent for, and a lot of things about where it should not go,” Marcus says. “All that money will be given away, and then the foundation will disappear off the face of the Earth, as it should be.”