What Does It Look Like When a Hedge Fund Billionaire Takes on Global Poverty?

In recent years, the Pershing Square Foundation has really taken off. That's the foundation of hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, who's well known for getting rich at a very young age and has been just as precocious in his philanthropy. 

The Pershing Square Foundation, which he founded with his wife Karen, is interesting and it's growing, which is why we've looked at this funder from various angles in recent months. Here, we dig into the foundation's giving for global development. 

Related - Bill Ackman is Moving Money Fast Through the Pershing Square Foundation

Now, before all the details, let us just say this: We don't see a lot of hedge fund guys pulling out their checkbooks for work that aims to lift the incomes of the poorest people in the world. Charter schools, check. Robin Hood, check. MoMA, check. But NGOs in East Africa? Um, no. 

It's not just the broader interests of the Ackmans that sets them apart, it's that they've built a professional foundation early in the game (they're still in their 40s), boosting their ability to give in more complicated issue areas. That's a big plus on global development, where neophytes can do a lot of damage—or simply waste a lot of money. 

What follows are a few things to know about the Pershing Square Foundation's global philanthropy.

1. Helping poor farmers is a top priority

The foundation has placed one of its biggest bets on One Acre Fund, which it's been backing since 2008, and which helps increase the productivity and income of small farmers in East Africa. The outfit received $5 million between 2011 and 2013. Grants have also gone to Nuru International and Root Capital, other NGOs laser-focused on helping small farmers boost their income. Other grantees include the Grameen Foundation, which has a big focus on agriculture in addition to its more well-known micro-lending work, and Kickstart International, which gets behind a range of entrepreneurial approaches to combating poverty.

While the Ackmans have looked to some development veterans to help them with their giving, it's no wonder they gravitate toward the very basic idea of helping people make more money through free enterprise. Remember, we're talking about the foundation of a guy who followed the ups and downs of the stock market as an undergrad, and made his first millions in his twenties. 

2. A venture strategy guides grants

The business mindset at work here is also evident in how the foundation talks about its grantmaking approach. It looks at organizations the way venture capitalists might: Who's leading this thing? Is their model strong enough to bust out and effect change? And can it get to scale? 

Beyond eyeing NGOs through this lens, the foundation thinks hard about its own niche in the global development field and wants to add value in a unique way. On grants, it says, "At the moment of funding by PSF, programs are normally at an inflection point, when targeted investment will be instrumental to their ability to scale and accelerate impact."

Of course, that same attention to timing is key in financial markets, where you want to get in (and out) at the exact right moment. 

3. The foundation has been beefing up, and widening its interests

The Ackmans started their foundation in 2006, and in recent years they've added staff. Amy Herskovitz, Karen's sister, came on early to play a full time role, bringing a background in social work and a keen interest in social entrepreneurship. The foundation's CEO, Paul Bernstein, was hired in 2010.

Bernstein comes from the NGO world and co-founded ARK South Africa in 2003, a well-respected worldwide HIV/AIDS treatment outfit. While there's no evidence of ARK being supported by the foundation, other similar outfits have received money. The foundation recently announced a $516,000 grant to Last Mile Health, a healthcare outfit that helps rural areas of Liberia in West Africa. Global Health Delivery Project, Doctors Without Borders, Hearts for Haiti, the Association for India's Development and the American Near East Refugee Aid have all received funding in recent years. 

Meanwhile, Herskovitz is a member of the Harvard Medical School Global Health Advisory Council which has been supported by the foundation.

3. The foundation is still ramping up 

Bill Ackman isn't even 50 yet, but he's worth $1.7 billion, and it's good bet he'll make a lot more money in coming years. Both he and Karen are Giving Pledge signatories. The Pershing Square Foundation has been growing steadily in assets, annual giving and staff, as well as adding new initiatives, such as a big recent venture to fund cancer research. 

In short, it may be that we ain't seen nothing yet. 

Read our full IP Profile of Pershing Square's global development philanthropy