If you’ve been to Las Vegas, Nevada, you’ve likely heard of Wynn Las Vegas, one of the many hotels and casinos that lines the glitzy desert strip. Vegas frolickers might also have heard of billionaire Steve Wynn, who has dealt with controversy in recent years in the era of #MeToo. Steve and his former wife Elaine Wynn launched Mirage Resorts in 1973 and went on to cofound Wynn Resorts in 2002. And last year, Elaine became the largest shareholder of publicly traded Wynn Resorts.
With $2.3 billion to her name, Elaine Wynn ranks eleventh on Forbes’ America’s Richest Self-Made Women list, and is an example of the serious money that can be amassed not just on Wall Street or Silicon Valley, but through a range of industries across the country. The gambling industry recently did $261.4 billion of output (business sales), according to a recent American Gaming Industry study. There’s a reason Elaine is dubbed the “Queen of Vegas.”
Writing a “Final Chapter”
Elaine Wynn also engages in major philanthropy and at the start of the decade launched the Elaine P. Wynn and Family Foundation, which she steers with her two daughters Gillian and Kevyn. The low-profile foundation’s sole staff member is Punam Mathur, who serves as executive director. I recently caught up with Mathur to find out more about Elaine’s journey as a philanthropist and the foundation’s grantmaking priorities.
Mathur is a gaming industry veteran, including working at MGM MIRAGE. And she counts Wynn as her first boss. “I had a wonderful run through the corporate gaming world and semi-retired about eight years ago. But then I received this call from Elaine, who said ‘I want to write my final chapter and I want it to be defined by my philanthropy. Would you ride sidecar?,’” Mathur tells me.
We often note how as donors move away from business, they start to think about other things like their philanthropic legacy. Wynn already has a head start on this front. Now in her late 70s, she has given away at least $125 million through the years, according to Forbes.
The Elaine P. Wynn and Family Foundation, Mathur says, is centered around three focus areas: Providing wraparound services for K-12 youth living in poverty; supporting performing and visual arts as an active patron; and funding at the intersection of arts and at-risk youth. Elaine Wynn is a major arts collector and purchased Francis Bacon’s "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" in 2013 for $142.4 million, a record-high price for a work of art at the time.
Wynn cochairs the board of LACMA along with private equity billionaire Tony Ressler, and in 2016, pledged $50 million toward the construction of a new home for the museum’s permanent collection. Mathur tells me Wynn has long had a passion for the arts and sat on the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for years.
In their work with at-risk youth, one of the foundation’s major grantees is Communities In Schools, an organization working directly in 2,300 schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia. Wynn and her family not only support the national arm but also its Los Angeles and Las Vegas affiliates. The foundation recently made 7-figure grants to Communities in the Schools and Communities in Schools in Las Vegas.
A Hands-On Donor
Mathur explains that Wynn’s commitment to giving goes far beyond writing checks: “She’s not just investing, she’s rolling up her sleeves and committing completely in ways that few people do.” Mathur says that Wynn was appointed by the last four Nevada governors to helm various educational policy task forces. And for the past eight years, Wynn has served as president of Nevada’s State Board of Education. “The organizations we’re supporting and involved with are working to close achievement gaps, and promote equity. And Elaine she’s amazing. She’s a unicorn,” Mathur says.
The family have also supported places like After School All Stars, Teach for America, and Eye Care for Kids. And Las Vegas itself is home to the Elaine Wynn Elementary School, which the foundation’s grantmaking supports. The Wynns have also strongly supported Three Square Food Bank through the years, a nonprofit whose mission is to eradicate hunger in southern Nevada.
On the arts end, Elaine is also a steady backer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In the Fall of 2017, Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation cut ribbon on the new Elaine Wynn & Family Education Wing at the Joan Weill Center For Dance. The family is also keen on connecting with institutions where the arts are presented to at-risk kids. They support Smith Center for Performing Arts, home to the Elaine Wynn and Family Foundation Education Studio. “We work with a great Nevada ballet theater where they take that experience into schools and help kids who have a passion and talent in the arts,” Mathur says.
The foundation does not have a formal grant process and indeed, Mathur is the foundation’s sole staff member. Rather than receiving solicitations, the foundation prefers to foster long relationships with organizations working within its interest areas. However, Mathur believes this lean approach allows Elaine and her family to really get hands-on:
We don’t have a long list of things that we fund, but I think that what sets all three of them apart is that sure they appear on the 990s, but also on the board, and committees. They roll up their sleeves, and they problem solve with organizations. It’s really a braided approach because money by itself is helpful but if you can bring business savvy, wisdom, and experience you can do more to advance the mission of the things that you care about.
While Elaine’s interests steer a bulk of the foundation’s giving, daughters Gillian and Kevyn, who both have ties to Los Angeles, should be watched carefully as well, particularly down the line. Gillian is active in the environmental conservation community and serves on the board of Conservation International, which the family supports. Kevyn, meanwhile, is involved in women’s issues, particularly in developing nations. Elaine Wynn pledged $1 million to Planned Parenthood a few years ago. Kevyn also recently joined the board of Geffen Playhouse.
The Elaine Wynn Foundation is a good example of a grantmaker that closely reflects the passions of its living donor, but is also likely to evolve over time—especially, in this case, given the serious wealth that is waiting in the wings and next generation heirs building a track record in the social sector. Wynn philanthropy is a story still very much in progress. “Part of the fun of family foundations is that they’re really intensely personal adventures as well,” Mathur adds.