The Imperfect Gift

Wealthy donors give hundreds of millions of dollars a year to environmental causes. Too bad it's not being put to the best use.

By Liz Galst

“Shouldn’t you be on the beach somewhere?” I ask retired hedge-fund manager Robert Wilson.

It’s a balmy summer afternoon, not terribly hot, but not cool either. And given that Wilson’s worth upwards of half a billion dollars (that’s right, half a billion), and could be almost anywhere in the world right now, sticky, overbaked Manhattan seems, well, an odd choice.

But then, “This is my beachfront property,” says the lanky, bespectacled 80-year-old, dressed in white slacks and a black polo shirt. With gentlemanly flourish, he opens the French doors to his terrace. The views of Central Park below are spectacular: the vast expanse of green, the rowboats on the lake, the luxury homes of the Gold Coast far across the way.

Yes, Wilson is worth a lot of money. A lot of money. And since, at this stage in his life, he’s only too aware that he can’t take it with him—and that he has no children to leave it to—he’s decided to give it away. To environmental groups in particular, luckily for everyone on Earth.

In the last few years, Wilson has offered environmental challenge grants—donations dependent upon recipient organizations raising matching funds—that will total $300 million. The money is to be doled out to three separate organizations: The Nature Conservancy, which purchases and safeguards environmentally sensitive land in the U.S. and abroad; the Wildlife Conservation Society, which works in more than 60 countries to protect endangered species and habitats; and the Environmental Defense Fund, the most market-oriented of the nation’s large environmental advocacy groups.

Like major funders everywhere, Wilson has given to groups whose philosophy he embraces and whose track record and way of doing business he endorses. As it happens, Wilson is a libertarian, “somebody who believes in sodomy and the free market,” he says, with an impish sparkle in his eye. Which is why, at least in relation to the free-market aspect of his philosophy, he chose Environmental Defense over, say, the more litigious, federally focused Natural Resources Defense Council or the grassroots-powered Sierra Club. “What distinguishes Environmental Defense from all the other environmental groups,” Wilson notes, “is they are really interested in trying to use the free price system. Most environmental groups are left-wing.” A definite turnoff for this former stock trader.

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Issue 25

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