Philanthropist Arthur Blank (No. 35 on our list of Top 50 Philanthropists) made his fortune at the helm of Home Depot (HD), which he founded in 1978 with another one of BusinessWeek's Top 50, Bernard Marcus (No. 14). Now Blank, 62, is making his mark in history by giving much of his $1.2 billion fortune away -- to the tune of $183 million in the past five years alone.
In 1995 he created the Atlanta-based Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, through which most of his giving flows. BusinessWeek's Lauren Gard takes some time to check in with Blank about his charitable aspirations. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What has been the focus of your philanthropy in the past year? Have there been any changes in where or how you give?
A: Last year, we focused on redirecting the work of our foundation. In the past, we did a whole variety of things, but the gist now is that we're trying to go narrower and deeper in the work we do with young people. In the last year we spent a lot of time recruiting a new president and making sure our direction and focus is as sharp as we need it to be.
Q: How do you think philanthropy on the whole is evolving in the U.S.?
A: These are not easy times in terms of philanthropy. Our country's needs are greater than they've ever been. There's a tremendous need today: The gap between the haves and have-nots is broader than it has ever been. For a lot of financial reasons, the federal, state, and city governments are unable to do as much as they've done in the past. It's important that individuals, institutes, and corporations that have the capacity, step forward to make a difference.
Our foundation is trying to have a more significant effect, to plant a tree that will have deeper roots, if you will. You can skim the surface with your giving, but if the solution is that easy it would have been found already.
Q: Is it difficult to hone in on specific projects?
A: I think it was Bill Gates who said it's harder to give the money away than it is to make it. People like Gates, Dell, my former partner Bernard Marcus -- these are people who've been very successful. And because of the work we've done in our businesses, we have created these large estates. But being able to give money away with purpose, an understanding of what you're doing, and to have an impact -- that takes a lot of work.
There are a lot of issues to sort out. The majority of us aren't professionally trained to do that. Many of our peers are the first to admit that this is not our background. We have a vision and a passion for making a difference, but often we don't know how to do it, and finding people who do can be difficult.
Q: Which of your foundation's programs are you most passionate about?
A: We have three areas of focus: "Fostering Opportunities," which focuses on early childhood development, prenatal through age 3; "Pathways to Success," which is about helping young people transition from high school to college; and enhancing the quality of life, where we focus on green space. We also spend a lot of time in the arts, particularly with the Atlanta Symphony. And the Atlanta Falcons [of which Blank is the owner] has the largest privately funded foundation in the NFL, focusing on youth programs in Georgia. The Falcons also have a guest ranch in Montana.
Q: How do you measure the impact of your giving?
A: This is a very important question. We just hired a senior officer from the Knight Foundation who had done that there for a number of years. We were not doing that as well as we might. You have to go into each of these programs understanding what you can measure, and go in [on] a periodic basis and review. You can find feel-good stories, but [the real question] is [whether] the program having the significance that [it] could have? With a lot of the issues today we're facing in the U.S., it's important to have an impact of scale.
Q: What kind of philanthropy coverage would you like to see in the media?
A: I'd like to see more of the Ted Turner kind of challenge. Some years ago, before his stock went down dramatically, he really challenged a lot of people like myself, people who had a lot of wealth in those institutions and leadership corporations, to do more than they've done, to unleash a lot of the gains from the stock market of the 1990s, [and] to be able to share [a] proportion of that in ways that could make life a little better. I'd like to see the media focus on a call to action.