The 15 People Most Powerful People in New York Philanthropy

New Yorkers like to think they live in the center of the universe, and that's actually true when it comes to philanthropy. Not only are some of the best known major foundations based in the city, but recent boom times have created mountains of new wealth, particularly on Wall Street, that is now flowing into philanthropy.

While many of the big foundations and individual donors in New York spread their wealth around the country and the world, a lot of funders focus their giving in New York or have a huge footprint here. We've been writing about many of these funders over the past year, and so we thought it'd be fun (and useful) to try to identify the most powerful people in New York philanthropy.

Power is hard to define, exactly. But to us it largely means the ability to deploy funds to make things happen, as well as to leverage personal and institutional connections. (See our list of the 15 most powerful women in philanthropy for a longer discussion of how we think about power as a metric.) 

Lists like this shouldn't be taken too seriously, since it's easy to forget people or overestimate how much power somebody has. As well, this kind of list invariably gives short shrift to influential staff or spouses, who often are the real holders of the purse strings.  

Maybe what's most useful about the list is that it offers a sense of the kinds of people who are directing philanthropic dollars in New York City, a mixture of foundation leaders and billionaire donors. That mix has changed substantially in recent years, which is why this list includes both some usual suspects and players who are newer on the scene. Again, keep in mind that we're interested in funders focused on New York, as opposed to merely being located in the city. 

The list is organized alphabetically, with links throughout to articles and profiles we've written over the past year. Let's dig in. 

1. MICHAEL BLOOMBERG

Since leaving City Hall, Bloomberg has been ramping up his giving. And while his philanthropy is global in scope, he and his foundation loom large in New York City, with Bloomberg money reaching a variety of institutions in the city. Major funds have gone in recent years to the Young Men's Initiative, a public-private effort which focuses on young men of color in city. And recently the foundation has been giving millions of dollars to four NYC cultural institutions to use mobile technology to engage visitors. As intriguing as what Bloomberg is doing now is what he might do next as he works to make a dent in giving away a fortune now estimated at $35 billion. Mike's right-hand woman in all this is Patricia Harris, the CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies, who we named last year as the third most powerful woman in U.S. philanthropy. 

Related - IP’s Profile of Michael Bloomberg

2. STEVEN A. COHEN

Cohen may be most associated with the hedge fund world of Connecticut, where he mainly lives, but he and his wife Alexandra (who grew up in Washington Heights) give out large amounts of money in New York. Their giving has been rising notably in recent years as Cohen has emerged from a prolonged government investigation of activities as his now defunct hedge fund. He's worth at least $10 billion, and he and Alexandra give out tens of millions of dollars a year. Most of Cohen's NYC giving has gone to three area: education, health, and the arts. In October, for example, the Cohens gave $3 million to The Equity Project (TEP) Charter School in Washington Heights. But Cohen has also given large amounts of money to the Robin Hood Foundation over the past five years. 

Related Steven A. and Alexandra M. Cohen Foundation: New York City Grants

3. RAY DALIO  

Dalio is another hedge fund billionaire (net worth $15 billion) whose work life is based in Connecticut, where he's the founder and Co-Chief Investment Officer of Bridgewater Associates, but who's deeply involved in philanthropy in New York City. Along with his wife Barbara, Dalio makes a huge number of philanthropic donations every year through the Dalio Foundation, which last reported assets of $600 million but is likely even larger now. The foundation's New York grantmaking has mostly been for private, charter, and university education, local libraries, and community enrichment programs.

Related - Dalio FoundationNew York City Grants

4. BARRY DILLER

Along with his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, Diller has emerged as a major force in parks philanthropy in recent years, using his money to literally remake the look of the city. The couple is the single largest donor to the High Line, and just recently committed $130 million to build a new (and controversial) island park off the shore of Chelsea, the largest donation ever in New York for a park. Diller money also finds its way to many New York City nonprofits, including grants for the arts and education. 

Related - Diller-von Furstenberg Foundation: New York City Grants

5. STANLEY DRUCKENMILLER 

In case you haven't noticed, this retired hedge fund manager has been ramping up his philanthropy in a big way lately. He gave out $74 million in 2013, with a good chunk of that money going to New York nonprofits, most notably the Harlem Children's Zone, which Druckenmiller has been helping build for years as the board chair and single largest funder. Gifts from Druckenmiller and his wife Fiona also go to other education and anti-poverty outfits, and they made a $100 million gift to establish the Neuroscience Institute at NYU School of Medicine. They've also given to a variety of arts institutions, and preside over a foundation which last reported assets of nearly a billion dollars. 

Related - Druckenmiller Foundation: Grants for New York City

6. MAURICE GREENBERG

Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG, is chairman of the Starr Foundation, which has over a $1 billion in assets and ranks among the biggest funders in New York, despite its low profile. Greenberg has actually been involved in the Starr Foundation since 1960. His wife, Corinne, is also very involved in the foundation, which has been led since 1999 by Florence Davis, a former corporate lawyer. Exactly who wields the most power at Starr is hard to say, but lots of money is going out the door there—for education, healthcare, the arts, and more. Recently, the foundation put up $25 million to help endow a Jewish nursing home in Riverdale. 

Related - Starr Foundation: New York City Grants

7. JANE B. O'CONNELL

O’Connell is the woman at the top of the Altman Foundation, a major funder dedicated to New York City and local nonprofits. Pretty much all Altman grantmaking stays within the borders of New York and touches nearly all parts of life in the city. Some recent major grants include $500,000 to the Fund for Public Schools, $450,000 to the Queens Borough Public Library, $300,000 to the Primary Care Corporation, and $250,000 to the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City. Housing and workforce development organizations have been catching O’Connell’s attention recently, and so have proposals that involve youth housing and youth employment. O'Connell has deep roots in the city; she began her career teaching English in a New York public high school. 

Related - Altman Foundation: New York City Grants

8. RONALD PERELMAN

With a net worth of $14.4 billion, Ronald Perelman is best known as the owner of Revlon but also heads the Perelman Family Foundation and has been stepping up his giving. He gave $196 million in 2013, with the top beneficiary being Columbia Business School, to which he pledged $100 million to help build new facilities in Manhattanville that will help change the look of that area of the city. Perelman has also been a supporter of major health institutions, with commitments like the $50 million grant to New York University Langone Medical Center to develop an emergency services center. Among his largest charitable donations, he gave $50 million to New York Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center in 2010 to establish the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute. But an array of Perelman grants of all sizes also go to organizations focused on education, the arts, and social services. 

Related - Perelman Family FoundationNew York City Grants

9. JULIAN ROBERTSON

At 83, with a net worth of $3.5 billion, retired hedge fund manager Julian Robertson is pumping big philanthropic dollars into the city through two separate foundations. The Robertson Foundation is the far larger of the two, giving out over $100 million annually, with major grants reaching all sorts of institutions in the city, particularly in education. Robertson has been a major player on the city's ed scene as a big backer of charter schools and reform advocates. Substantial funds have also gone to the city's top medical research institutions. As if that weren't enough, Julian Robertson's money is also behind the Tiger Foundation, which gives out $15 million a year to combat poverty in the city, spreading sizeable grants around to numerous nonprofits working different angles of the city's deep poverty problem. Robertson doesn't sit on the board of Tiger, but his son Alex does, and he's also somebody to watch. 

Related - IP's profile of Julian Robertson

10. JUDITH RODIN  

As president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Rodin oversees a major global and national foundation. But Rockefeller also has a robust New York City grantmaking program and a big footprint in the city. Money from the foundation reaches a variety of arts institutions through its NYC Cultural Innovation Fund, and the foundation also addresses the needs of low-income people through its support of Opportunity NYC, which aims to change behavior through conditional cash transfers. In addition, Rodin's signature program at Rockefeller, on climate resilience and resilient cities, extends to New York, and she and the foundation have been closely involved in post-Sandy efforts to protect the city from future storms. Rodin was co-chair of a task force created by Governor Cuomo to address the city's vulnerabilities and Rockefeller funded several efforts in this area, including a competition called "Rebuild by Design."

Related Rockefeller FoundationNew York City Grants

11. DAVID SALTZMAN 

David Saltzman was one of the Robin Hood Foundation’s co-founders in the late 1980s and has served as its executive director ever since. Over the years, as its financial industry backers have gotten richer and richer, Robin Hood has emerged as a dominant grantmaking force in the city, funding a wide array of nonprofits working on different challenges, including education, homelessness, job training, and veterans issues. In 2013, Robin Hood awarded $181.8 million in grants. As importantly, the foundation has helped draw any number of financiers into philanthropy who've gone on to create their own foundations. Saltzman, with deep roots in the city's education and social sector, has been right at the center of the emergence of the new financial philanthropy in New York. 

Related - Robin Hood FoundationNew York City Grants

12. JULIE SANDORF

The Charles H. Revson Foundation, which Sandorf has led since 2008, isn't one of the largest foundations in the city. But it has a big presence in the city's nonprofit sector and Sandorf brings deep experience to her job having formerly been president (and founder) of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a program director at LISC, and a consultant to several major foundations. Revson's main grantmaking programs are biomedical research, education, urban affairs, Jewish life, and the NYC Neighborhood Library awards. The foundation usually awards $5 million to $10 million in grants each year, most of which stay in New York. A few local grants include $395,000 to the Weizman Institute of Science, $400,000 to Macaulay Honors College, $350,000 to the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, and $225,000 to the Rashi Foundation. Revson also has a history of nurturing public service with fellowships, which is another reason its profile exceeds its assets. 

Related - Revson Foundation: New York City Grants

13. LORIE SLUTSKY

Slutsky leads the New York Community Trust, and her ties to the foundation go way back. She’s been the president of the trust since 1990; however, she began her career there in 1977 as a grantmaker for education, housing, government and urban affairs, and neighborhood revitalization. Today she leads a community foundation that manages a $2.3 billion endowment, numerous donor-advised funds, and grants more than $140 million to nonprofits each year. NYCT’s giving includes grants to children and families, community development, environment, education, arts, human justice, health, and people with special needs. But beyond its role as a top grantmaker and catalyst of philanthropy by individual donors, NYCT is often an incubator or participant of funder collaborations, and we've written about several of them over the past year, like an effort announced last summer to address educational inequities. Many roads lead to NYCT, and to Slutsky. 

Related - New York Community TrustNew York City Grants

14. DARREN WALKER

The Ford Foundation famously got into a huge mess with its local education funding in the late 1960s, and doesn't have an explicit New York program like Rockefeller. But the foundation's money flows all over the city, and CEO Darren Walker is incredibly well-connected to other Gotham power players. Long ago, he was the COO of the Abyssinian Corporation in Harlem, so he knows the community development world. He also knows the arts crowd, and their moneyed friends, as vice chair of the New York Ballet's board. In addition, he sits on the board of Friends of the High Line, along with any number of billionaires or their spouses. There's more, but you get the picture: Big grantmaking assets plus enormous social capital. 

15. JOAN WEILL

It was Sanford Weill who made the family fortune as the head of Citigroup, but it's his wife, Joan, who's done a lot of the work of giving that money away—becoming one of the most prominent and well-connected philanthropists in the city along the way. The Weills donated $118.1 million in 2013, on top of huge sums in previous years. Before announcing her retirement as chair of the board of trustees for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Weill famously took the organization to a whole new level. She's also played an important role at Carnegie Hall. But Weill money also looms large in the city's healthcare sector, with vast sums going to Weill Cornell Medical College. Many small gifts go out to social service nonprofits.

Related - IP’s Profile of Joan Weill