Ackman, Counting Philanthropic Wins, Says He Needs to Make MoneyBy
‘I used to take it for granted, now I’m very focused,’ he says
Pershing Square Foundation event celebrates 10th anniversary
Bill Ackman, deep into a conversation about how he gives his money away, briefly addressed his large losses on Valeant Pharmaceuticals.
“The biggest investment failure of my career happened in the last 18 months or so,” he said. “I blame part of that on not managing my time effectively.”
Ackman, speaking at a June 5 dinner in Manhattan for the nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs he funds, made clear it’s not his philanthropic efforts that distracted him.
“You pick amazing people, you don’t have to worry, you can trust them,” Ackman said of Pershing Square Foundation’s staff and grantees, drawing an analogy with Warren Buffett managing Berkshire Hathaway with a head office of only 25 people.
And his role? “I need to make money,” Ackman said in an interview later in the evening. “I used to take it for granted, now I’m very focused.”
That focus suits the foundation, started two years after Ackman founded Pershing Square Capital Management. As his business grew, so did grants and investments in education, health care, social justice and the arts.
Commitments have risen and fallen with his funds’ performance, but the foundation has pledged a total of about $400 million since inception and generated plenty of success stories that were shared at the group’s 10th anniversary celebration.
Frederick Wiseman thanked Ackman for supporting his documentaries like the one on the New York Public Library scheduled for release in September. DonorsChoose founder Charles Best said Ackman’s assistance helped the organization become self-sustaining.
Kimarley Garrick, an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica, said he would not have been able to go to college without Ackman’s support of scholarships through TheDream.US.
One thing became clear: The (little) time Ackman offers makes its mark.
Amy Bach, founder of Measures for Justice, recalled the first time she met him in a Pershing Square boardroom overlooking Central Park. She made it through just a few slides when Ackman told her to leave. “Ten minutes later, he brought me back to say, ‘You don’t have to look for funding for a while,’" she said. But he set two conditions: locate the staff in one place and find other major funders. She did, and her service, which uses data to measure U.S. criminal justice system performance at the county level, went live last month.
Vineet Singal, co-founder and chief executive officer of CareMessage, which uses texts to manage medical appointments, said Ackman gave good advice. “The one thing he said was, ‘You have to pay your talent really well,’ ” he said. “And that’s been huge. When we met Bill, we were working with 25 clinics and 50,000 patients. Now we work with 200 clinics and health centers and 1.2 million patients."
Ackman can sound like an activist talking about his dealings with nonprofits. When he learned that Echoing Green’s funding of social entrepreneurs had not increased beyond $1 million a year for 15 years, he bumped that amount by another $1 million. “I joined the board for a number of years. I helped embarrass them into growing.”
The foundation’s co-founder, landscape architect Karen Herskovitz Ackman, plays an active role on the boards of grantees such as Friends of the High Line, Human Rights Watch and Vassar College. “We’re always looking to address major problems with innovative approaches,” she said in a video that played during the veal and lobster dinner. “That means finding remarkable individuals who are looking at the same problems in creative ways.”
The event took place at the Park Avenue Armory, a longtime member of the foundation’s portfolio, as final preparations were underway for the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s experiential “Hansel & Gretel.” It invites the public to wander in the dark under surveillance in the vast Drill Hall, and to find captured images of themselves afterward.
“For us, he was the perfect match,” Rebecca Robertson, the Armory’s president and executive producer, said of Ackman. “Obviously you can see the stuff we do is nuts. We do nothing but challenge constantly. He isn’t ever afraid of anything.”