Vartan Gregorian, President/CEO, Carnegie Corporation of New York

Vartan Gregorian, President/CEO, Carnegie Corporation of New York

Established in 2001 to commemorate the centennial of Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy, the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy celebrates individuals and families whose values and philanthropy reflect Carnegie's legacy and philosophy of giving. The awards program is intended to celebrate the spirit and achievements of American philanthropy as well as build bridges to emerging philanthropist and philanthropic traditions around the globe. Indeed, the medal, which is awarded every two years, is seen as a kind of Nobel Prize of Philanthropy.

Recently, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Vartan Gregorian, president and CEO of Carnegie Corporation of New York, about this year's honorees, the selection process for the medals, and what he has planned for 2011, the centennial of Carnegie Corporation of New York, one of the oldest and still one of the most influential philanthropic institutions in the United States.

Philanthropy News Digest: By the time this appears, you will have announced the winners of the 2009 Andrew Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy: New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg; Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife, Betty; former Citigroup chair and CEO Sanford Weill and his wife, Joan; and the Koç family of Turkey. All are worthy recipients. But why this particular group of people at this particular time?

Vartan Gregorian: Let's start with Mayor Bloomberg, who has a long history of philanthropy and has given over a billion dollars to all kinds of organizations and institutions. Typical of him, most of those gifts have not been announced, even though we know that Johns Hopkins, where he served as chairman of the board, and many major and minor organizations in New York have benefitted from his generosity.

Then we have Gordon Moore and Betty Moore and all they've done to address environmental concerns and promote basic science. And Sandy Weill, honored for what he has done for Carnegie Hall and a host of other institutions both here and abroad. As for the Koç family from Turkey, they have built a university and schools and have also contributed to the preservation and restoration of historical sites and monuments in Turkey.

PND: With so many philanthropists to choose from, how do you decide which ones to honor? And is it a labor-intensive process?

VG: Well, the Carnegie Medals are not about recognizing one-off gifts. All the recipients share a philosophy of giving: that with great wealth comes great responsibility. And their giving is not confined to the U.S.; it is international in scope. Second, they are not just about charity. We define philanthropy as giving that tries to address the root causes of a problem rather than just a reaction to the symptoms of a problem. The philanthropists we choose to recognize are not giving out of pity; rather, they give out of a conviction that their philanthropic resources should be used to improve the human condition. So, we look at the range and duration of their giving, the quality of their giving, and the impact of their giving. Of course, we scrutinize their philanthropic records.

There are more than twenty Carnegie organizations, and all can recommend candidates. On the search committee, we have four permanent members and two rotating members. Andrew Carnegie's great-grandson, William Thomson, is the committee's honorary chair. In our deliberations, first of all, we decide whether or not a potential honoree's wealth is personal or whether he or she is giving somebody else's money. For example, we have excluded some heads of state who are generous but who fund their philanthropic investments with state money rather than their personal wealth.

Then we check to see whether there is anything controversial about them. For example, in the past, we considered somebody who had a checkered career; we chose not to honor that person. We also look at the nature of their giving: Is it used to promote one's business? There's no place for that in our calculation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is not investing in Africa in order to sell more copies of Microsoft Windows. Their generosity transcends commercial and personal ambitions.

So, the nature of an individual's giving, the character of that giving, the range of institutions that have received support over the years, the countries and regions where the philanthropists give support — we take all of these things into consideration. We're trying as much as possible to select international philanthropists while keeping American philanthropy as the main focus. And it has worked so far.

PND: Clearly, a lot goes into making a final selection. Is that why the medals are only presented every two years?

VG: Well, yes, there is a lot involved. It takes a good deal of time and effort to bring representatives of the more than twenty organizations to New York or Washington, D.C. or Pittsburgh or Scotland — the other locations where we've hosted the event — and we take care to give honorees enough time to organize their schedules. Some of them would love to have a representative accept it on their behalf, but we don't allow that. Because we're trying to build a network among these individuals, encouraging them to get to know each other, to bond with each other, being at the ceremony in person is as important as the act of receiving the medal.

PND: Carnegie Corporation was created by Andrew Carnegie in 1911, which means this will be the last Carnegie Medal ceremony before the centennial anniversary of the foundation's establishment. Was there any talk of postponing this year's ceremony and celebrating this group of honorees in 2011 instead?

VG: We talked about that. We've even discussed whether or not we should have two presentations — one in the United Kingdom and one in the United States. We've made no decisions yet about how to mark the Carnegie Corporation of New York centennial, in part because these are difficult times to plan a celebration of any kind. This year, we have done what we could to keep costs down, always keeping in mind that the main objective of the foundation is to invest in people and institutions. That said, we are celebrating these philanthropists in order to advance the cause of philanthropy here and abroad and to underscore the importance of giving back to society.

PND: What would Andrew Carnegie make of the state of philanthropy today?

VG: I am sure he would be very proud. Americans give some $300 billion to philanthropic and charitable causes every year, and among many segments of society giving back has almost become mandatory. My colleagues in Europe are perpetually astonished to learn that presidential candidates in the United States must reveal how much they have given to philanthropic and charitable causes. No other country would dare to ask its leaders to divulge that information. But in this country we believe philanthropy is the public's business because it serves the public's interest.

Second, Andrew Carnegie would be very proud that almost 70 percent of that $300 billion in giving comes from people that make less than $70,000 a year. It's not just rich people in the U.S. who give; rank-and-file Americans also give. Indeed, giving has become a part of our culture.

A third reason he would be proud is that so many of our cultural institutions — operas, symphonies, theaters, museums, and many of our universities — are sustained by private philanthropy. And he would be delighted that there are 1.4 million nonprofit organizations in the United States today and that approximately one out of every ten or eleven working Americans works for a nonprofit.

Having said this, I think he would be concerned that there are foundations and individuals — a few, not many — who may be tempted to abuse philanthropy for personal or family gain. And he would be appalled to see some wealthy people paying more attention to their personal welfare and reputation rather than the many problems and needs that exist in our society.

More importantly, I believe Andrew Carnegie would be proud that his vision of philanthropy is still relevant in the 21st century. And he would be very pleased that people have come to accept his concept that with great private wealth comes great public responsibility.

Matt Sinclair