The son of a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive, Jacob Lief emulated the fundraising strategies of charities with Wall Street ties to help schools in South Africa.
He built a database of likely donors, such as hedge-fund titan Stanley F. Druckenmiller, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and fashion designer Donna Karan.
His Ubuntu Education Fund has supported education and health care for more than 24,000 poor, orphaned or abused children in townships near Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. It also helps with exam preparation, career guidance and college scholarships.
“With daily interventions of medical, psycho-social, educational and nutritional support, we take a child from incredible hardship and get him through university,” said Lief, Ubuntu’s president and co-founder, in an interview at Bloomberg News headquarters.
Tonight, Karan is donating space for an Ubuntu fundraiser co-hosted by actor Joaquin Phoenix and author Salman Rushdie at her Urban Zen Foundation headquarters in Manhattan’s West Village. Other guests include actors Liv Tyler and Marisa Tomei. The hip-hop/neo-soul group The Roots will supply the music.
Ubuntu’s New York gala in November drew 700 attendees and raised a record $2 million for the charity. The South African-American musician Dave Matthews performed before donors and guests including Druckenmiller, Goldman Chief Financial Officer David Viniar, actor Robert De Niro and New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Lief was studying diplomatic history at the University of Pennsylvania and planning on a business career when his goals shifted during a 1998 visit to South Africa. He saw poor schools that used abandoned shipping containers for classrooms. He visited classrooms where the blackboards were blank because the schools couldn’t afford chalk.
Returning to school, he tapped his credit cards and raised $300 with a raffle to launch the Ubuntu Education Fund the following year.
“My father was very supportive when I wanted to do this,” Lief said about Daniel Lief, an Ubuntu advisory board member. “People were very skeptical at first, but my dad said whatever you do, just go into it 100 percent.”
Earlier this month, Ubuntu raised $1.2 million at an event in London where it has an office. The event’s co-hosts were Earl Charles Spencer, the brother of the late Princess of Wales, and Richard Gnodde, the London-based co-chief executive officer of Goldman’s European division.
In 12 years, the charity’s budget has grown to $6.2 million from a few thousand dollars. Lief now oversees a staff of 80 in London, New York and Ubuntu’s headquarters in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
“We’re not Robin Hood, and you’re not going to see your name in lights,” said Lief, referring to the New York-based poverty fighting foundation supported by many hedge-fund executives. “We’re getting people who really care about this cause.”
The money raised tonight will be used to help Ubuntu’s nutrition program for orphans and poor children.
One of Ubuntu’s first Wall Street supporters early on was Harvard Business School professor Robert S. Kaplan, a former Goldman vice chairman who oversaw the investment banking and investment management units. In the past two years ago, the charity has lured more Goldman and finance industry donors, Lief said.
“What our donors like about us is that we run our own program, we know where we’re spending the money and we’re not giving it to another organization to hand out,” he said. “I look these people in the eye and I say, ‘I won’t let you down, I want to make this work.’”
(Ubuntu Education Fund’s “A Spring Evening” event is tonight at Urban Zen, 705 Greenwich St. in Manhattan, from 7 to 11. Tickets are $250 and $600. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org)