Lenfests Put Mark on Philadelphia Philanthropy

After becoming billionaires relatively late in life, Marguerite and Harold FitzGerald "Gerry" Lenfest decided to make their mark philanthropically, especially in the Philadelphia region, by giving away the vast majority of their fortune, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Although the Lenfests' interest in philanthropy dates back a few decades, the couple began giving much more seriously in 2000, when Gerry Lenfest sold his cable business, Lenfest Communications, boosting their net worth by $1.2 billion. After the sale of the company — and distributing some $60 million to his employees — Gerry Lenfest committed to giving away the vast majority of his and Marguerite's wealth within a decade or two. To that end, the couple established the Lenfest Foundation to support their charitable interests while encouraging Gerry's three adult children, who were partial owners of the company, to set up their own foundations. Since 2000, the Lenfests have distributed or committed nearly $800 million to about 180 organizations.

The gifts, which have ranged in size from $100,000 to $93 million, have supported a wide range of organizations, including Columbia University, to which the couple has given more than $100 million. However, the Lenfests are probably best known for their support of Philadelphia civic life, having provided significant support to the Barnes Foundation, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the American Revolution Center, as well as funding college scholarships for local students. The couple also frequently partnered with the Annenberg Foundation on local initiatives before the late Walter Annenberg, who gave Gerry Lenfest his start in business, passed away.

Indeed, Gerry Lenfest has become well known for his ability to persuade others to give. When Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell decided to commit $15 million in state money to help expand the Curtis Institute, he said he had done so because Lenfest twisted his arm.

Still, what some have called "the Lenfest decade" in Philadelphia philanthropy is nearing an end, as the couple slows the pace of their giving. "We've given a lot of money to a lot of organizations, and I'm not sure we can keep going at this pace," said Gerry Lenfest. "We've given away the bulk of our wealth. We'll have to go into hibernation."

Peter Dobrin. "Beyond Philanthropy, Lenfests Show Personal Commitment." Philadelphia Inquirer 05/10/2009.