A lawyer by training, Lenfest, together with his wife, Marguerite, built up the family cable business, Lenfest Communications, Inc., selling it in 2000 and, with the proceeds, giving more than $1.3 billion over nearly two decades to charitable and philanthropic causes — more than any other individual or couple in the state over that period. Through the Lenfest Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the couple supported the arts, education, and journalism initiatives; were among the first signatories of the Giving Pledge in 2010; and were awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2017.
In 2013, the Lenfest Foundation announced that it would spend down the bulk of its assets over the next fifteen years to help disadvantaged youth in Philadelphia in three areas — early childhood education, out-of-school care, and career and technical education. In addition to supporting old-line institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Curtis Institute of Music, Lenfest also established the Lenfest Ocean Program and was a lead donor to the Museum of the American Revolution, which opened its doors in 2017.
Lenfest considered his support for the news industry to be critical. With the late Lewis Katz, he bought the Philadelphia Media Network — the holding company for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com — in a 2014 auction for $88 million. In 2016, Lenfest donated the media properties to the then-newly created nonprofit Lenfest Institute at the Philadelphia Foundation, along with a $20 million endowment to ensure the future of independent journalism in the region.
"What would the city be without the Inquirer and the Daily News?" he asked at the time of his gift. "Of all the things I've done, this is the most important. Because of the journalism." At $129 million, the estimated value of the gift — including the original purchase price of the property and subsequent donations to the endowment — is second only to his giving to Columbia University ($155 million), where he earned a law degree.
While Lenfest was a hands-on donor who did not hesitate at times to make his wishes known, "[i]t was much more a kind of partnership with the institution than is often true with philanthropists," said Columbia University president Lee Bollinger. "They have their own views, and the organization is almost an instrument of their beliefs. That was not Gerry. It was, 'What can I do to support you?' In that sense, there was no better person to be part of your institution. That is why everyone wanted him to be part of their institution."
"Gerry has had a huge impact on the renaissance and renewal of Philadelphia and all of its institutions," said Philadelphia Museum of Art president and COO Gail Harrity. "I don't think it's a stretch to say that he has shaped Philadelphia for the future."