The Wall Street Donor Behind Harvard’s Human Behavior Gift

Harvard’s massive fundraising campaign charges ahead, with the announcement of a $17 million gift that will fund a nascent research initiative on the mechanisms of human behavior. The latest in a string of large donations to Harvard comes from alumni Bill and Karen Ackman’s foundation, which is driven less by an interest in research than in alleviating poverty.

The Pershing Square Foundation, founded by the Ackmans in 2006, announced the gift to Harvard’s Foundation of Human Behavior initiative, and will establish a $5 million research fund, along with three endowed professorships. The funding for the initiative accompanies an additional $9 million in gifts—$4 million to Harvard Medical School for a global health chair, and $5 million to the not-so-social-justice cause of the Harvard men's crew team. 

The Foundation of Human Behavior is led by economist David Laibson, and will be an interdisciplinary effort to research the roots of why people do what they do, and pursue interventions that will improve “societal well-being.” Laibson previously spoke at a panel, touting his high hopes for using fields like genomics and neuroscience to achieve breakthroughs in behavioral science, which could in turn transform policies and institutions. 

The initiative sounds very similar to another recently launched effort out of Florida State, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, for an interdisciplinary study on the nature of self-control

As for the source of the funding, the Pershing Square Foundation is not typically a research funder, but gives mostly to povery-fighting efforts. So the motivation behind the gift to Harvard is likely split between his affinity toward his alma mater, and the potential social justice applications that may result from a better understanding of human behavior. For example, long-term studies have suggested that young people with better self-control become more successful adults. 

Aside from the Harvard gift, the foundation has given to struggling African farms, social entrepreneurship nonprofit Echoing Green, Human Rights Watch, and the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. The foundation takes a "philanthrocapitalist" approach to grantmaking, extending investment and venture capital strategies to philanthropy. With a trust currently at about $94 million, the foundation has made $235 million in grants and investments so far. Aside from poverty-related grants, Pershing Square also gives its share to cultural and community causes such as theater, ballet, youth sports leagues and parks like New York's High Line.

The philanthropy's wealth comes from investor Bill Ackman, who, at age 47, is a young and recent billionaire. His current investment company has significant holdings in large retail and restaurant chains. Ackman has had quite a few stumbles and controversies in recent years, but has managed to stay pretty much on top, with a net worth of $1.5 billion.  

Read more about Harvard’s recent fundraising spree, and about the Pershing Square Foundation below.

Why Do People Keep Giving Harvard Such Huge Gifts?

Paul Bernstein, Pershing Square Foundation