Julian Robertson's Philanthropy Is One Tough Nut to Crack

Julian Robertson was once known as the "wizard of Wall Street," back when he ran the world's biggest hedge fund and was famous for placing very large (and winning) bets. Robertson is still something of a wizard, at least insofar as he practices big-time philanthropy behind a curtain of secrecy that is maddening for grantseekers. 

The Robertson Foundation had assets of over $800 million at the end of the 2012 and gave out $103 million in grants that year. This makes it a bigger grantmaker than such well-known foundations as Knight, Mott, and Annie E. Casey. Another foundation under Robertson's control, the Tiger Foundation, ended 2012 with assets of $137 million and gave out $14 million that year. 

All these numbers were probably bigger in 2013, and much more money is in the pipeline. Robertson, who is 82, has signed the Giving Pledge, so we can at least expect the assets of his foundation to eventually double and, quite possibly, to triple or quadruple. 

Besides scale, the other significant thing about Julian Robertson's philanthropy is that he has broad interests. He gives in three of the big areas that we track closely here at IP—education, environment, and medical research—but also for religion and spirituality, along with other issues that may catch his eye. 

In short, this is a funder that a great many nonprofits should be interested in, giving lots of money for lots of causes with the promise of even bigger things to come. 

But getting in the door is no easy thing, and even peeking in the door is pretty hard. While the foundation does have a website, it doesn't accept unsolicted proposals or list contact information for any of its program officers. That doesn't strike us as the right way to treat the nonprofit world, given that Robertson's philanthropy is subsidized by tax breaks that leave the rest of us paying a little more.

On the other hand, you can certainly see why philanthropists and foundations do whatever they can to shelter themselves from vast armies of importuning grantseekers. For one thing, it helps keep administrative costs low: The Robertson Foundation spent just $3.1 million on administrative expenses in 2012, a fraction of some other funders spent moving similar money. 

Here at IP, we've been working hard to find out more about both Julian Robertson and his foundation. Here's what we have so far. I hope it's helpful. More is coming on this major philanthropic player who operates in the shadows. 

A profile of Julian Robertson

An analysis of the foundation's K-12 funding 

An analysis of the foundation's climate funding

An analysis of foundation's marine & rivers funding

Some info on Phoebe Boyle, the Robertson Foundation's executive director (with her email!)

A profile of Sarah Brennan, the foundation's program officer for climate funding