Fighting injustice has always been a part of my life. Witnessing first hand the racial and religious bigotry of the Deep South in the 60’s and 70’s, and frequently hearing about the atrocities of the holocaust, my path towards a life of service was set at an early age. My plan had been to pursue a law degree with a focus on human rights. Yet, after rejections from Harvard, Yale and Stanford law schools, I decided on a new plan – enter the workforce to make as much money as quickly as possible, and then use that money to go out and change the world.
After a few failed entrepreneurial efforts, I soon found my way into the telecommunications industry where I used the education from my failures to help ensure the future success of Access Long Distance, the company I founded and managed for 14 years. When I was in my early 30’s and the company was rapidly growing in value, I made the decision to stay in the business world until I turned 40 and then pursue my passion of service.
Was I a compassionate, charitable individual during those business years? No, I was not.
Being an amateur philanthropist giving away money using the technique of “spraying and praying” was not for me. I did, however, have one meaningful foray into philanthropy. After watching Schindler’s List, I so resonated with the message that one person could make a difference that I funded a program to ensure that high school students in Utah (where I was living at the time) could see the film for free.
For the most part, I kept my eye on the prize of getting out of business at 40 and then becoming a professional philanthropist. Almost making that self-imposed deadline, I signed the paperwork to sell my company one month after my 41st birthday. My business days ended in 1999. My net worth soon grew to $133 million, and my new career to efficiently spend down that capital began.
How did I do my giving in the early days? Where did I learn how to give? During my last year in business, I spent a great deal of time online reading news reports from around the world. “If I hoped to change the world, I had first better understand it,” I reasoned. I wanted to bring business efficiency and common sense, selfless approaches to the humanitarian world. My first project, KidSave, focused on getting older children out of unfathomable conditions in orphanages in the former Soviet Republics. It wasn’t long before I was exposed to the tragic reality of human trafficking. Horrified that such a practice existed, my efforts to combat trafficking and also rescue those who had been victimized began and continues to this day. A myriad of successful projects followed; yet, I felt as though my efforts were like putting band-aids on a patient who was bleeding out.
And then, in 2007, I came across Tostan, the nonprofit I’m now obsessed with helping reach hundreds of millions of people. Contrary to a band-aid approach, Tostan actually empowers communities to transform from within, an approach that has influenced my grant making to this day. With its successes in ending the practices of child marriage and female genital cutting, to facilitating grassroots democracies, women’s rights and women in leadership positions, I’m convinced that Tostan has found the magic bullet the development world has been looking for.
In 2009, my eyes were opened to the cruel realities of life for animals in factory farming, laboratory testing, and many other areas. I am saddened at how long I had been ignorant to the plight of so many sentient beings. Suffering is suffering. I now focus a significant portion of my efforts to eliminate and reduce this needless suffering and killing.
Several years ago, while looking over my philanthropic portfolio, I realized that the categories I was funding were extremely broad. “What did my grantees have in common?” I wondered. I was focused on addressing issues with the most suffering, the most need, where the mainstream groups weren’t involved, and where I could make the most difference. That lead me to come up with the tag line for my foundation, the Greenbaum Foundation, “Being a bystander to suffering is not an option.”
I’m also a big supporter of the Effective Altruism movement and approach to philanthropy. I first learned of this movement after viewing Peter Singer’s TED talk on the subject in 2013. It described my approach to giving, from “Earning to Give,” all the way down to the type of projects I funded and how I evaluated those projects. That TED talk, along with the book, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t about Chuck Feeney, resulted in my taking a closer look at my values and then publicly committing to spend down on charitable projects at least 85% of my assets during my lifetime, and the remainder soon thereafter.
I’m a humanitarian. I’m a feminist. I’m vegan. I sleep well at night.