News and analysis
February 06, 2011

A Billionaire Looks to Give Away Most of His Fortune—Once He Figures Out the Details

Ricky Carioti/Washington Post/Getty Images

“I don’t play golf,” says David M. Rubenstein, a co-founder of the private-equity firm the Carlyle Group. “I don’t have a lot of other things I am focused on right now besides my business, philanthropy, and my family.”

As a young aide to President Jimmy Carter in 1978, David M. Rubenstein attended the first Kennedy Center Honors, now a gala and television show that each year celebrates several performing-arts icons and benefits the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

In 2010 Mr. Rubenstein again attended the Honors but this time as the center’s chairman—and as a donor of $10-million, including $200,000 to pay for programs like the Honors.

Charities can expect plenty more big gifts from Mr. Rubenstein, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a private-equity firm, whose personal wealth Forbes has estimated at $2.5-billion.

He says he plans to give at least half his fortune to charity and do as much giving as he can while he is still alive to enjoy it.

“Washington has been a good city to me,” says Mr. Rubenstein. “I came with virtually no money, worked in the White House, created a business here, and raised my family here. There are many institutions in Washington I am involved with, and I like to help.”

Making a 'Pledge’

And help he did last year, by going on a philanthropy spree.

In addition to the Kennedy Center gift, Mr. Rubenstein, 61, donated $10-million for scholarships at the University of Chicago Law School, his alma mater, and $5-million to the Library of Congress to support its annual book festival.

In all, he gave more than $26.6-million in 2010, placing him at No. 40 on the Philanthropy 50, The Chronicle’s annual ranking of America’s most- generous donors.

The gifts are a small part of Mr. Rubenstein’s lifetime of philanthropy, which has also included donating at least $100-million to groups that include Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in New York, and the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, in Baltimore.

Last summer he signed the “Giving Pledge” promoted by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, offering at least half of his fortune to charity.

With memberships on more than 25 nonprofit boards, including the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, he wants to be very involved in its dispersal. However, he hasn’t settled on the answer to a big question: Where will most of his money go? “I am still feeling my way a bit,” he says.

Growing up in a blue-collar Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore, Mr. Rubenstein didn’t expect to be in a position to give significant sums.

His father, a Marine turned postal worker, never made more than $8,000 a year while Mr. Rubenstein was growing up. Neither of his parents attended college. His mother hoped her only child would become a dentist.

But her son had other ideas. He made weekly trips to the library, where he took out the maximum-permitted dozen books—he loved biographies and history—and studied hard in school.

He attributes his interest in learning in part to the fact that he had no brothers or sisters. “Only children tend to be more self-starters or more self-sufficient,” Mr. Rubenstein says. “I wasn’t fighting with any siblings. I had more time to be alone and read.”

Literacy, he hints, might be a focus for some of his future giving. “I feel I got where I got because of my love of reading.”

He won full scholarships to Duke University, in Durham, N.C., and the University of Chicago Law School. Afterward, he toggled between private law practice and government work. After the Carlyle Group became successful, Mr. Rubenstein richly rewarded the institutions that had paid his way.

Duke University received two gifts, in 2003 and 2009, totaling $10.75-million, for the Sanford School of Public Policy. He has supported other efforts at Duke, including programs centered on Jewish life, and says he’ll likely make more gifts.

Mr. Rubenstein’s 2010 donation to the University of Chicago Law School will provide three-year scholarships for 60 students.

Michael H. Schill, the law school’s dean, says budgetary constraints have precluded the school from offering full scholarships for at least 15 years. He describes Mr. Rubenstein as an engaged donor who spent a day and a half in November visiting the school, giving a lecture, and teaching a class.

“If I e-mailed him now, he’d respond in 15 minutes, probably from China,” says Mr. Schill. “He wants to make a difference and he can make a difference.”

Historical Documents

Philanthropy entered Mr. Rubenstein’s life with a bang after he read an article seven years ago that said the average male his age would live to be 81.

“Very few people on their deathbed say, I wish I had worked harder or made more money,” he says. “On their deathbed, they usually say the same two things: I wish I had spent more time with my family, and I wish I had done more to make the world a better place.”

Besides his monetary contributions (he won’t say the exact amount), he has purchased three landmark historical documents—copies of the Magna Carta, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Declaration of Independence, all on permanent loan to the U.S. government—that he strongly implies he will donate after he dies.

In addition to giving money, Mr. Rubenstein prides himself on rolling up his sleeves to raise money and brainstorm at the nonprofit groups where he holds leadership roles.

“He is nonconfrontational; he is collaborative,” says Michael M. Kaiser, the Kennedy Center’s president. “He is a very busy man, and he always makes time for me.”

And he makes time for Kennedy Center staff members as well. As the new chairman, Mr. Rubenstein spoke to the group’s 700 volunteers as well as the arts groups that perform at the Center most frequently.

“I don’t play golf,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of other things I am focused on right now besides my business, philanthropy, and my family.”

While enabling him to give away millions, his business, the Carlyle Group, has attracted some controversy. In 2009 the group paid $20-million to the State of New York to settle an inquiry by the state’s attorney general into its use of placement agents, people who helped the firm solicit business from a New York pension-fund. The Carlyle Group was not charged with any wrongdoing.

Through a spokesman, Mr. Rubenstein says that criticism of Carlyle has no impact on his personal giving decisions.

Though he has pledged to donate at least half his fortune, Mr. Rubenstein describes his giving as “embryonic.” He hasn’t sought much advice on it, and is in no hurry to create a foundation. He says he doesn’t particularly want to hire staff members who might voice opinions on his giving or to have to publicly disclose every gift he makes. For now, he handles every solicitation request. “I enjoy making decisions myself,” he says.

Independent Thinker

Not even his spouse or children exert influence over his charitable giving.

His wife, Alice Rogoff Rubenstein, has her own philanthropic interests as a founder of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, in Anchorage. They jointly support some causes, including the Kennedy Center, but her name is absent from Mr. Rubenstein’s largest gifts.

“My wife didn’t want to be completely in the shadow in terms of my gifts,” he says. “She has carved out other things she is involved with.”

The couple has three children: The eldest, a daughter, works at Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, while the youngest, a son, attends Duke. Mr. Rubenstein’s middle child, a daughter, has shown a special interest in philanthropy and is turning her Harvard senior thesis into a book about giving by celebrities under age 30. He says she also plans to write a children’s book on philanthropy. “So that is what she is doing until she goes to business school,” he says with a wry smile.

A Passion for Literacy

So far, Mr. Rubenstein’s biggest gifts have supported causes dictated by his personal history, interests, or board memberships. Mr. Rubenstein’s love of the arts doesn’t stem from personal talent—piano lessons in fourth grade were a failure—but rather the arts’ ability to bring people together.

“The Kennedy Center is something that unifies the city,” he says. “We have gotten ourselves into a situation where Democrats and Republicans don’t talk to each other as much as they used to, and here they do.”

Through a spokesman, Mr. Rubenstein says another major gift to the Kennedy Center, comparable to his gift in 2010, will be announced soon. The gift will support diversifying the center’s audience as well as broadening arts-education efforts.

As Mr. Rubenstein determines the direction of his philanthropy, he says he will keep an open mind.

In December The Washington Post reported that the Carlyle Group’ might sell ownership shares to the public, a move that could greatly enrich its three founders and others at the company. Mr. Rubenstein wouldn’t comment on the rumors, except to say that his charitable plans would remain unchanged even if they proved true.

“If I make more money, then I will have more money to give away,” says Mr. Rubenstein. “And I’ll be happy to do it.”