Jewish Journal


July 26, 2007

Eli Broad: An ‘unreasonable’ man on an urgent mission


Eli Broad. Photo by Brian Walski

Eli Broad. Photo by Brian Walski

Eli Broad is Los Angeles' biggest philanthropist, Jewish or otherwise. He is also a highly unreasonable man, judging by the George Bernard Shaw quote on the first page of his foundations' annual report.

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Broad's three top unreasonable priorities are to turn around the city's and country's dysfunctional public education system, raise the level of public support for the arts, and -- a bit more reasonable -- upgrade medical and scientific research standards.

Quoting from the annual report, "We are not passive philanthropists. We don't wait for grant applications, calmly review their merits, pass out checks and wait to see if the money results in any changes for the good.

"We have a sense of urgency in our mission that extends to the goals we set, the way we operate and the standards to which we hold ourselves."

Speaking to The Journal last week, Broad estimated that through their two foundations, he and his wife Edythe have given away a total of some $2 billion, with current net assets pegged at $6 billion, give or take a few hundred million dollars.

Although the Broads' philanthropy goes back 35 years, most of the $2 billion has been dispensed in the last five years, and almost all has gone to their three priority areas.

"I realized that I got more money than my kids will ever need, and, as they say, you can't take it with you," said Broad, who, unlike most men in his position, does not hide behind spokespersons or "I'll have someone check this out for you" evasions.

Eli Broad was born 73 years ago in New York into "a liberal Jewish Democratic household" of Lithuanian immigrants, moved as a youngster with his parents to a Detroit suburb and, in 1961, headed for Los Angeles to make his fortune.

Arriving as a bright young CPA, he made his first fortune out West as a mass homebuilder, and a second one with the giant financial services company SunAmerica. He retired from business a few years ago and now works full time as a very hands-on philanthropist and all-around civic gadfly.

Broad also gives to specific Jewish causes and institutions.

"I give several hundred thousand of dollars to The Jewish Federation here every year," he said. His foundation recently donated $1 million to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, and also supports a children's program in Tel Aviv.

On the normal scale of charitable giving, these would be considered headline-provoking gifts, but they represent only a miniscule proportion of Broad's overall philanthropy.

In 2006, Broad said, he gave "several million dollars" to Jewish causes, out of $137.6 million distributed by his two foundations in 2006 (and $300 million in 2005).

In an interview with The Journal four years ago, Broad was more specific, saying that out of $350 million in philanthropy the previous year, $2 million went to specifically Jewish causes.

Such figures bear out the conclusions reached by researcher Gary Tobin of San Francisco, who found in a massive 2003 study that Jewish mega-donors ($10 million or above in one year), gave a mere 6 percent of their totals to Jewish causes, including support groups for Israeli universities.

The reasons given for this wide gulf in general and Jewish giving are many and not well proven. They include the ever-growing integration of Jews into American society, a redefinition of "Jewish giving" to encompass everything that "repairs the world," and the timidity of Jewish organizations in developing plans for mega-donations.

In Broad's case, while he believes in supporting Jewish causes, his philanthropic decisions are based on hardheaded business sense.

"Like venture capitalists, we look for untapped opportunities, and we make strategic investments," he declared in the annual foundation report. "As investors, we expect a quantifiable return."

With that standard in mind, Broad said, "If I find a Jewish philanthropy of merit, I will support it."

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