California Banker Emerges as One of Nation's Most Prolific Philanthropists

Former banker Bernard Osher, whose lack of pretense has earned him the nickname "the quiet philanthropist," has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the arts and education over the years and intends to give away the bulk of his fortune before he dies, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

According to BusinessWeek, Osher gave away more than $800 million last year, making him the eleventh most generous philanthropist in the world, while in 2006 he gave $732 million to his foundation, the third largest gift of the year by an American philanthropist. What many people don't know, however, is that Osher has been giving large sums of money to various causes for decades, sometimes publicly and sometimes anonymously and without ceremony. And there's more to come. "Although I have no heirs," he told the Monitor, "I can enjoy the opportunity of helping members of several generations lead more fulfilling lives by my contributions."

Born in Biddeford, Maine, Osher managed his family's hardware and plumbing business before stints on Wall Street and as a founding director of World Savings, which recently merged with Wachovia Corporation. Although Osher and his four siblings went to college, his immigrant parents never had that opportunity, spurring Osher's interest in education. Nearly 80 percent of his foundation's grants have gone to support educational programs. While the programs vary in size and objectives, they all have in common the goal of improving the educational opportunities of those from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds. He has supported, for example, a lifelong learning program at the University of Southern Maine and the UC Berkeley Incentive Awards Program, and earlier this year he pledged $70 million to make scholarships available to community college students in California.

Osher also is deeply devoted to the arts, which receive about 17 percent of his foundation's funding. Among other things, the foundation underwrites the PBS series From the Top: Live from Carnegie Hall, which features young classical musicians, and it has backed a program run by the San Francisco Symphony that works to strengthen music programs in public schools.

Brent Assink, executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, began working with Osher in 1999. "He's a guy devoted to education, more specifically, hands-on education," said Assink. "Barney Osher is just a great example of how much fun it can be to remain intellectually curious. He seems to thoroughly enjoy life and especially thinking about how he can make a difference."

Paul Van Slambrouck. "A California Financier Emerges as One of the Nation's Most Prolific Philanthropists." Christian Science Monitor 07/23/2008.