Investor and philanthropist Jim leitner

Investor and philanthropist Jim leitner

American finance leaders hold some of the world’s largest fortunes, and some are only now turning to big-time philanthropy. One intriguing thing about this cohort is just how varied their giving is, touching right-of-center and progressive policy alike, charters and education reform, medical research, the arts, and plenty more. As these folks continue to amass and then leverage their wealth, they stand to have significant influence on many areas of public life for years to come.

One newer area of giving among Wall Street philanthropists, and one that may come as a surprise, is equity. Consider Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, and their Fuhrman Family Foundation. The couple fund criminal justice reform work and sponsored the creation of the nation’s largest free Wi-Fi network covering some 100 city blocks in Harlem.

Then there’s New Jersey-based Jim Leitner, who’s been described as the greatest macro trader you’ve never heard of. Leitner gained notoriety in his field as a pioneer of carry trades—borrowing a lower interest rate currency to buy a higher interest rate currency. His firm Falcon Management Corporation’s website is unassuming, a single page with only an address and phone number.

His Falcon Foundation keeps a similarly low profile, giving around $1.3 million in a recent year to nearly two dozen grantees. Past grants have touched his alma maters Yale, Columbia and Fordham University, where his wife Tracy Higgins, a lawyer and writer, founded and co-leads the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice. I recently spoke with Leitner to learn more about what motivates his philanthropy and what we might expect in the future.

An International Backstory

Leitner is a good example of a donor whose philanthropy is deeply informed by his unique background. Raised in Germany and Turkey during the 1950s and early 1960s, he describes his home as deeply diverse and enriching. When his grandfather would send him to the newspaper stand, Leitner recalls seeing the mix of languages in print—Arabic, Serbian, Albanian. “Turkey was a really fabulous place. There was a Greek community, an Armenian community… It was just a really multicultural part of the world,” he says.

In Germany in his early teens, Leitner caught the finance bug, visiting the local bank and buying stocks. Decked out in lederhosen, he was playfully addressed as “Sir James” by staff. But when it came time for college, Leitner decided to travel to the states to attend Yale, where he majored in economics and also took a bunch of Russian Studies classes.

He went on to attend Columbia University for his master’s degree in international finance, securing a gig as a money broker trainee—working half the day on Wall Street before jetting back up to Morningside Heights for classes and exams. Leitner eventually made his way to JPMorgan’s trading desk, and later, Bankers Trust, where he was responsible for all the trading business in Europe, drawing upon his fluency in German and French, and knowledge of Russian.

Leitner really started to make hay in the early 1990s, when he launched his own shop Falcon Management and started making what he describes as a reasonable amount of money in Russian equities. “To me, it was a time of hope and possibility. Russia at that time was a country that wanted to live up to the ideals of the revolution,” he says, as if channeling his old Yale Russian Studies professor, who he still remembers fondly.

He sold just before the 1998 Russian financial crisis, and then started buying again. Leitner, it seemed, always had luck on his side.

An Emerging Giver

On the heels of his first big payout in the 1990s, Leitner also became increasingly drawn to more large-scale philanthropy. He says he was driven in part by John Lattanzio, head trader of billionaire Michael Steinhardt’s trading room at the time. He said Lattanzio posed a simple, yet profound question: “OK. You’ve done so well for yourself. But what are you going to do next?”

Lattanzio pointed Leitner in the direction of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, the institution where Martin Luther King Jr. was taken after he was shot. Leitner and family ended up down in Memphis, and decided to give their first big donation to St. Joseph’s. “It just felt right. My family had always cared about the world. I was brought up to care about people and issues,” he says.

On the heels of this gift, Leitner made two decisions. First, that he would give away 50% of whatever he made. The Falcon Foundation has recently maintained an asset base of between $10 million and $15 million each year, per tax records, and has given away between $1.3 and $1.7 million annually of late. “Depending on the year, sometimes, we give away more than other years. But we have also put away money in the foundation so it can grow,” Leitner explains.

Second, Leitner decided to make it a priority to support underprivileged students, particularly at educational institutions where he has a personal connection. Consider his alma mater Yale, where he says he’s been one of the largest donors to support internships for students wanting to study abroad. Leitner has also supported nursing students, who he notes have international influence, all the while not getting paid that much and often struggling with debt.

He remembers being at Yale’s MacMillan Center, where he connected with a nurse who was studying to become a nurse midwife. She was lamenting the limited opportunities to practice in her own community in Connecticut. He set up a program at Yale’s nursing school to send nurse midwives to South Africa to help with births, as well as curb AIDS transmission and deal with other issues. “How could we use the world to get these nurses better educated, while also providing them with an international experience?” Leitner says.

The family has also supported the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, focusing on students who go on to work at NGOs and elsewhere. And driven by his son’s interest in astronomy, the family also created the Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium. A key stipulation in the gift was that the broader New Haven community would also have access to the planetarium, which is now frequented by New Haven public school students and runs a range of educational programming.

Ultimately, Leitner’s extensive work at Yale is an example of alumni loyalty and escalating giving, both common traits among philanthropists.

A Human Rights and Equity Focus

“There are certain things in a democracy that are fundamental. Human rights is one of them. I want to invest in things that make sure the dignity of the individual is taken care of,” Leitner says, explaining his family’s human rights work.

Leitner is married to Tracy Higgins, a Fordham University professor of law who has a particular interest in human rights, and women’s rights in particular. The Harvard and Princeton grad serves as co-director of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School, a “think and do tank” that engages with students across human and civil rights issues. The Leitner Center stands on three pillars: getting students involved in human rights work through classes and clinics, doing cutting-edge research, and building capacity. The center has been especially involved with issues of women’s rights and access to justice.

Since earning his law degree from Fordham at night while working at JPMorgan, Leitner has kept strong ties to the school. His gift arose from the school’s dean inviting Leitner down to view a presentation. “They knew I had an interest in this area and talked about a new human rights program. I met people running it and started supporting it,” Leitner says.

He also supports the Leitner Family Professor of African Studies at Columbia University’s Institute for African Studies. He’s also been involved with the Marshall Project since its early days and supports Montclair State University in his current backyard, as well. Through Higgins’ alma mater of Princeton, meanwhile, the couple supports the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, which deals with wildlife conservation.

“The Stone Thrown in the Pond”

Speaking of the family’s local giving at Montclair State and other organizations like Montclair Food Bank and Montclair Film Festival, Leitner offers a key insight: “There are themes in my life that I care about, but there are also regions. In your philanthropic giving, I think you need to kind of be like the stone thrown in the pond. You need to care about the community that you’re in, then the state, then the country, and then the world. And you do different things at different levels.”

A lifelong learner, Leitner was drawn to Montclair State after befriending its president, Susan Cole, from whom he learned more about criminal justice issues. Eventually, this escalated into his supporting a lecture series on criminal justice at the university. Leitner says he’s particularly concerned with the bottom 1%—the more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States.

On a national level, the couple, staunch Democrats, are involved with and support the ACLU. And Higgins is on the board of PEN America, another grantee.

It appears that some of the family’s strongest philanthropic relationships started with simple conversations, and here’s a final example. Visiting Higgins’ constitutional law class, Leitner started talking to Hansdeep Singh, a student who later co-founded ICAAD. The NGO’s mission is to combat structural discrimination with a focus on gender-based violence. Leitner signed on as their first donor and helped them get off the ground. He adds that he’s particularly impressed with ICAAD’s work combating gender-based violence in Fiji.

Engaged with many causes, Leitner seems especially confident in the capability of his grantees, and even though he is a numbers guy, notes that he’s not particularly fixated on evidence.

“There are a lot of foundations that try to make sure they know how well the money is spent. But I often think, you spend little bits of money on lots of people, it’s like planting seeds. You don’t know which plant will come up, and which won’t. But some make a huge difference.”

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