Laura Lauder is a Wexner Heritage alumna from San Francisco. She would be delighted to receive comments and questions, and/or to assist any Wexner alumni regarding their personal strategic philanthropy. She can be reached at: 

Writer’s Note: The piece below is an excerpt from a 12-page Retrospective with charts and photographs that can be seen in its entirety at: 

Realizing the need for a philanthropic self-evaluation

Our family created the Laura and Gary Lauder Philanthropic Fund (LPF) in 1995 to

pursue the mitzvah of tzedakah, or righteous giving. The Torah commands us to be philanthropic, and we feel significant responsibility to give back to our community and do our small part in making the world a better place.

This review is the philanthropic journey of our young family trying to act on the values that we hope to transmit to our children. We have documented our journey so that others may avoid our mistakes, and gather the courage to attempt their own philanthropic expedition. After 13 years of grantmaking, we took a cursory look at our philanthropic giving totals, and came to some startling realizations.

First, we didn’t realize the extent of some of our giving patterns. For example, a monumental 50% of our grants were given to help build buildings. Yes, capital grants are critical to build a community, and building Jewish life is one of our top priorities philanthropically. Today, all the major institutions in our community in the South Peninsula of the SF Bay Area (Hausner Day School, Palo Alto JCC, our Synagogue, Stanford Hillel, etc.) have raised over $250 million and have built (or are nearly finished) with a magnificent new infrastructure. Now, having (barely) survived the seemingly endless solicitations, suddenly we have to face new choices about how to re-prioritize our giving in other areas and in new ways.

Our second “a-ha” had to do with the 50% of our grants that were not capital grants over the past 13 years: they were program and operating grants. However, we were shocked to realize that we had given to more than 400 charities a year! Most were in amounts under $1000. So, we had little impact on any of them. Many were requests by friends. In the programmatic area, we had to change to be more strategic in order to increase our impact.

And so, we had two compelling issues to face: we needed to focus away from capital giving, and make our programmatic grants more strategic. We needed help.

We hired an organizational consultant to review our previous 10 years of philanthropic giving. She helped us articulate our family’s values and hone a strategic mission for the future. From there, we worked to create an operational framework for LPF (Lauder Philanthropic Fund) in alignment with our mission.

We have taken small steps over time: Last year, we created “buckets,” or categories, for grants consistent with the Fund’s mission. We made only 80 grants and limited our “relational” giving (to friends’ causes outside of our mission) to less than 10 percent of total grants. The process has been cathartic and refreshing; and we realized it’s never completely finished. We are constantly refining our philanthropic focus as issues change, but we try to maintain a careful, strategic focus so we can achieve real impact.

The Next Chapter

As our giving evolves, so must our strategies. The decisions about charitable contributions are as difficult as those made in business. They require clarity and demand diligence, evaluation, and objective review. Indeed, discipline, thoughtfulness and imagination only strengthen philanthropy.

Looking forward, we plan to use the following guidelines:

  • Fewer capital grants. Although major capital investments were required in the past to build the infrastructure of the Bay Area Jewish community, most of those needs have been met. We do not anticipate many significant capital grants to Jewish institutions in the future.
  • More program endowments. Under competent management at appropriate institutions, endowment programs are powerful tools to achieve meaningful, long-term impact.
  • Partnerships. We learned that LPF grants are most effective as part of collaborative efforts in the early stage of development, which require our personal leadership and full complement of resources and networking.
  • Measured risk taking. While taking risks is an important function of philanthropy, LPF will undertake only ventures it can, and intends to, fully support.
  • Professional support. Our grants were most successful with the guidance and support of professional staff and lay leaders from experienced institutions.

These observations helped us develop the following theory of change to inspire our funding choices:

When launching effective solutions, private individual funders can often work more efficiently than institutions can on their own. These funders work best when they have a clearly defined project, lend their personal leadership to the effort, have the support and guidance of the staff and board of an institutional home, and have viable alternatives for an effective exit strategy after a defined time.

This careful vision of our strategic philanthropy enabled us to craft a mission statement for LPF over the next 10 years:

The founding principle of the Lauder Philanthropic Fund is that highly motivated, high-achieving individuals, and educators in particular, can inspire more people to pursue tikkun olam— repairing the world—as defined in the Jewish tradition.

When we make program grants for new initiatives, we engage in entrepreneurial, venture philanthropy in order to strengthen progressive leaders and organizations that promote and inspire social justice. In making these strategic operating grants, the Fund prioritizes allocations that leverage existing institutional resources to catalyze organizational excellence and social change.

Our key areas of funding are:

  • Leadership development programs
  • Jewish day school education
  • Jewish community institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area and Aspen, Colo.
  • Social justice

Our preferred grantmaking strategies are:

  • Entrepreneurial, strategic initiatives created by LPF
  • LPF programs within existing organizations
  • Endowments for mission-related programs
  • General operating and program support for key institutions in the LPF’s fields of interest 


What have we learned from this review of these 13 years?

First, we understand that venture philanthropy is just one approach to strategic giving. It is time consuming, exhausting, and the most rewarding. General operating support can be just as strategic if it’s for mission-related programs, and if it supports key leaders.

Second, we learned that it is important to be self-reflective. Without critical review

of past efforts, we will repeat our mistakes and cannot share the lessons we learn, and our growth potential would not be so dynamic.

Finally, we believe that, despite the time and risks, it is incumbent on us all to follow our passions and help others in ways we can make a difference. The amount of money does not matter; it is ultimately our time that is the most valuable, yet scarcest, commodity. Professionals and lay leaders need a variety of resources to execute the monumental missions we seek to accomplish. When we use our resources efficiently and effectively, we can succeed in making our communities—and our world—a better place.