A Couple of Givers: Bruce & Suzie Kovner, Part V

Fundamentals of philanthropy, plus some encomia

Editor’s Note: Bruce and Suzie Kovner have won the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership. It is given by the Philanthropy Roundtable. The Kovners are celebrated in the current issue of Philanthropy magazine. The article about them is based on reporting by our Jay Nordlinger. In a series this week, he has written about the Kovners himself, in a kind of amplification. Previous parts are at the following links: I, II, III, and IV. The series concludes today.

I wish to ask the Kovners some basic questions about philanthropy — one of which is, “How do you know whom to give to? There are infinite needs, infinite causes, in the world. How do you narrow down?” Bruce says that his giving history is “personal and opportunistic.” He gives to what he is personally interested in — musical institutions, for instance. And he gives when a juicy opportunity arises: an opportunity to make a difference. This has happened in school choice, for example.

Suzie says that, as a rule, she and Bruce wish to “reward people who work hard and want to get ahead.” She also notes that you can be touched by a cause, and impressed by an organization. In 2005, two little girls — sisters aged ten and eight — started a group called ThanksUSA. It provides scholarships to children of military personnel. Suzie Kovner is a director of the organization.

Like all philanthropists, surely, the Kovners get many requests, from people they know and people they don’t know. They refer these requests to their foundation, which Bruce set up in the early ’90s. Saying no can be difficult. Yet people in the Kovners’ position learn (and if they don’t, they may find that they are no longer in the position).

Okay, how do you know how much to give? Especially when, like the Kovners, you have a great amount to give? The Kovners have a budget — a yearly budget — and they stick to it. But they have to decide, of course, how to allocate money within the budget. Sometimes, they go by feel. The numbers are somewhat arbitrary. But often, they give to fulfill particular institutional objectives. How much does a historical-performance program cost? Here is the money. The Metropolitan Opera needs a new fly system? (The better to transport Valkyries, perhaps?) Done.

Not every donation leads to 100 percent success. Early in their giving to charter schools, the Kovners discovered that some schools stumble and fail while others flourish. Non-governmental does not necessarily mean successful. But they learned as they went, as people do in life: whether the area is philanthropy or something else.

As you may have noticed, the Kovners like to assume leadership positions in the organizations they fund. It would be easier to write a nice check and forget about it and go read. This is particularly true of a private and cerebral person like Bruce.

True, you can give with strings attached, without getting involved in leadership. You can set rules. Bruce has done that, and done it successfully. But it’s risky, he says. Your rules may be counterproductive in that they don’t anticipate change. Also, organizations are skilled at manipulating donors — giving them good news, for example, instead of straight news.

Like it or not, says Bruce, there is no substitute for “inserting yourself into leadership and taking responsibility to fight it out at the organizational level.”

Joseph Polisi is president of the Juilliard School, and he holds both Kovners to be unusual, almost uniquely valuable donors. They do “deep research,” he says. They figure out all the angles. And “they don’t have their own agenda. What they do is understand the agenda of the institution that they support, or may support, and how that agenda is sustainable. Their giving is extraordinarily thoughtful.”

The Kovners’ foundation will not exist in perpetuity. It will be spent down during their lifetimes. Again, responsibility: Bruce and Suzie want to oversee the expenditures, rather than leaving the job to others. (People do funny things with other people’s money. Ask Henry Ford and John MacArthur, just for starters.)


Talk to a person about Bruce Kovner — someone who knows him — and you will get an encomium. I will relate just two of them, in these final paragraphs. The first comes from Bill Kristol, the editor, writer, and political strategist. One of the groups he has a hand in is the Foundation for Constitutional Government, which the Kovners back. Kristol says that Bruce is smart, thoughtful, etc., which everyone says (and which is true). He also says,

“While Bruce is well educated, he continues to educate himself, which is not the case with all of us. We tend to coast on our previous education. Also, Bruce is a man who thinks for himself. He is not a camp follower, of any group. I think he was really shaped by his teachers, especially Ed Banfield, who was such an original thinker, a strict thinker, without any sloppiness in him. Bruce reflects that.”

Arthur Brooks has a lot in common with Kovner. He succeeded Chris DeMuth as president of the American Enterprise Institute. In his scholarship, he is a particular expert on charity. Also, he once made his living as a musician — as a French-horn player. “What animates Bruce,” he says, “is the intersection of truth and beauty. They are a seamless garment for him. Where one stops and the other begins is almost an arbitrary distinction for someone like Bruce. Taxation and Scarlatti sonatas are different things, to be sure. But Bruce understands that there is a moral dimension to each. There is moral merit to both truth and beauty.”

Brooks emphasizes that Kovner makes things possible for people who aren’t wealthy — even leaving aside such obvious cases as children in charter schools. How about ticket-buyers at the Metropolitan Opera? Those tickets may be expensive, but they’re a lot less expensive than they would be without the philanthropy — the subsidy, if you will — of the likes of the Kovners. Also, through his think-tank work, Bruce is making it possible for the speaker of the House to get the best ideas for health-care reform.

“So, Bruce has different interests?” says Brooks. “Not exactly. He understands that these are different branches of the same tree.”

I will sneak in a little encomium of my own. Bruce and Suzie Kovner have a lot of money, and they use it beautifully. They live beautifully. They work hard, and spend hard, to lift up others. They know how to be rich, if you’ll allow that. They deserve to be rich — which is something that no classical liberal like me ought to say, but which I say anyway, because it perhaps conveys a point. As far as I’m concerned, you can put your money under a mattress or gamble it at the track. It’s none of my business. I don’t think everyone needs to be Andrew Carnegie or Mother Teresa. But I admire the Kovners tremendously, and, if you’ll forgive the hippie-dippie language, they have made the world a better place.


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