What Will Peter B. Lewis’ Philanthropic Legacy Be?

The passing of Progressive Chairman Peter B. Lewis over the weekend in his home in Coral Gables, Florida raises the question: What will his philanthropic legacy be?

In his letter to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett joining the Giving Pledge, Lewis notes he has already given nearly $500 million to charity, and "plans to keep going." The largest chunk of that by far ($233 million) went to his alma mater Princeton for a variety of capital campigns, including $60 million for a science library, $55 million to create the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, and $101 million for an arts initiative. He also donated more than $77 million to the Guggenheim, and $36.9 million to Case Western Reserve in his hometown of Cleveland to help construct a building at the Weatherhead School of Management.

In addition to the arts and education, Lewis was also a supporter of progressive think tanks and advocacy organizations, giving $15 million to the American Civil Liberties Union, $10 million to America Coming Together, and $2.5 million to MoveOn.org.

His most unlikely donation, however, may have been the $3 million he gave to the Marijuana Policy Project. In response to the donation he told Forbes, "I don't believe that laws against things that people do regularly, like safe and responsible use of marijuana, make any sense. Everything that has been done to enforce these laws has had a negative effect, with no results." 

Although Lewis created several charitable organizations in his Lifetime, including The Lewis Foundation, The PBL Fund, and The Management Center, their combined assets at the end of 2011 were only about $12 million, and their combined giving that year totaled just over $300,000. Of course, that does not mean that Lewis had not been donating to charity— just that a lot of his giving was not done through his foundations.

But it remains to be seen if he has left substantial sums to some of the institutions to which he had longstanding connections, or if, perhaps, he endowed his foundations and left instructions on how to give the money away. The most likely candidate would be the Management Center, which Lewis began as a response to what he saw as “a remarkable paucity of good management in the non-profit world,” though it would almost certainly work in conjunction with his foundation.

Lewis is survived by his wife, his brother, three chidren, and five grandchildren. He has said in the past that he taught his children and grandchildren “how to be effective philanthropists in their own right,” so it is likely that as Lewis’ estate is settled, his endowments to favored philanthropic organizations and causes will continue.