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Trust CEO Recalls Big Hedge Fund Egos, Porn Donation

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Eileen Heisman
Eileen Heisman, president and CEO of National Philanthropic Trust. Photographer: Philip Lewis/Bloomberg

July 15 (Bloomberg) -- As chief executive officer of the National Philanthropic Trust, Eileen R. Heisman counsels billionaires, receives their seven- and eight-figure wire transfers and accepts odd gifts such as surf boards and an antique Army tank.

Heisman has made the Jenkintown, Pennsylvania-based trust a player in the charity world. Since its launch in 1996, it has raised more than $3.3 billion in gifts and has made grants totaling $1.7 billion to charities around the world. The trust also manages $1.7 billion in assets, which include about 3,000 donor-advised funds.

U.S. philanthropy is still down about 8 percent from the 2007 peak of $344.5 billion, according to the 2012 Giving USA Foundation Report, but donations last year were up 3.5 percent from 2011 to $316.2 billion.

We spoke at Bloomberg’s New York world headquarters:

Cole: When did you realize it was possible to have a job giving money away?

Heisman: When I was a freshman in college, I walked into my dorm room for the first time, and my roommate was there. I asked her what her father did. She said he gives away money for Prudential Life Insurance, and I said, “That’s a job? I want to do that when I get older.”

Cole: What’s a typical day like for you?

Heisman: It’s management by walking around. I just ask people if they have a couple of minutes. I want to be the first to hear any news. I also get 300 to 400 e-mails per day about philanthropy.

Cow Bell

Cole: What happens when a really big donation comes in?

Heisman: We have a cow bell in the office, and we ring it whenever a large gift comes into the donor-advised fund. It has to be $500,000 or more.

Cole: How big do these checks get?

Heisman: One of our earliest donors put us on the map: an adviser called and told me that a gift of about $100 million was arriving.

When it finally came in, I asked the accountant how much it was, and he said it’s not $100 million, it’s $200 million! We went from $30 million to $230 million overnight.

Cole: What are some of the strangest offers you’ve received?

Heisman: Surf boards, an antique Army tank, boats. Somebody offered us a chain of adult bookstores once.

I said, “Do you want me to run them?” It’s not like I could sell them right away.

I couldn’t even take something like that to the board.

Cole: What are some of the headaches?

Hedgie Headaches

Heisman: The most complicated donors -- you just want to whack them over the head -- are hedge fund managers. They’re so egomaniacal number one, and number two, I guess they get everything their way all the time.

This hedge fund guy called me directly and said he’d decided he would get a better deduction if he had made the gift in January, so he wanted to back-out the gift in December and then re-make it.

I said you can’t do that. It’s illegal.

It would be only a $70,000 tax difference for him, a drop in the bucket. That’s like $10 for you. That giving is not motivated by the heart.

Cole: Are more Wall Street and finance executives choosing donor-advised funds to shield their giving from the public?

Heisman: Almost everybody you see on those big giving lists has a private foundation. Almost all of them have donor-advised funds, and many of them have more than one.

There’s the wealth of the charity world that you see and there’s a whole world you don’t see.

Howard Stern

Cole: Tell us about an act of generosity that’s touched your family.

Heisman: My brother Dan Heisman’s first wife died of breast cancer. He’s an internationally rated chess master, and he taught Howard Stern. Every year Howard gives a free tour of his studio and an on-the-air opportunity to the highest bidder to benefit the Holly Heisman Memorial Fund.

The fund is up to $100,000 because he does this. I can’t even listen to Howard, and yet he’s raising money for breast cancer as a tribute to my late sister-in-law. You never know what’s inside somebody.

(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Craig Seligman on books and Elin McCoy on wine.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Cole in New York at pcole3@Bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at Mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net

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