Kaplan and the Cats: A Case of Passionate Philanthropy

To say that Tom Kaplan is a hands-on kind of funder would be a gross understatement. For the billionaire natural resources investor and benefactor of the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation, philanthropy means more than passively writing a check—it means leading by example. Recently, I spoke with Tom Kaplan about his foundation’s work, his personal passions, and how aligning those two areas may be just what the future of philanthropy needs.

Like other foundations, the New York-based Recanati-Kaplan Foundation is programmatically varied with a giving portfolio that includes arts & culture, education, Jewish life, and wildlife conservation. But it’s this last area where its work and leadership get the most attention. Recognized globally for their commitment to conservation, Kaplan and his family established two independent nonprofit entities dedicated entirely to wildlife conservation and they fund leading research programs around the world with an emphasis on wild cats. These include:

  • Panthera – Founded in 2006, Panthera directs and implements conservation strategies for the world's largest and most imperiled cats—including tigers, lions, jaguars, snow leopards, leopards, and puma—and the people who live with them and within those habitats. 
  • The Orianne Society – Named for Kaplan’s daughter, Orianne is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to the conservation of imperiled snakes and their habitats around the world.
  • The Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University – WILDCRU is one of the leading university-based institutes for wildlife conservation research in the world. Kaplan, through Panthera, endowed the WildCRU study based in Zimbabwe’s Hwange Park that was tracking Cecil the Lion when the beloved cat was illegally hunted and killed; sparking worldwide outrage.

Kaplan’s work with the big cats is more than just a passing interest. He is utterly obsessed. He talks about the cats with the same intensity and nuance you might expect from a seasoned field biologist—a dream Kaplan admits got away from him in his youth. Which is to say Kaplan’s love for big cats runs wide and deep. Since 2008, the Kaplan family has contributed more than $75 million to wildlife conservation efforts while working tirelessly to raise the public profile of endangered cats and their habitats.

Kaplan’s exuberant passion has served his foundation well strategically, too. 

Last year, Kaplan brought together philanthropists from China, India, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. to form an unprecedented global alliance committed to wild cat conservation. Kaplan, along with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi; Jho Low, director of Jynwel Charitable Foundation Limited of Hong Kong; and Hemendra Kothari, chairman of DSP Blackrock India and the Wildlife Conservation Trust, committed an initial $20 million each over 10 years in support of a $200 million initiative run by Kaplan’s Panthera organization.

At the core of Kaplan’s approach to conservation is the notion that no one issue exists in a vacuum. Big cat conservation, like any social or environmental challenge, is layered, and each cat is inextricably linked with the functional and social dimensions of its broader ecosystem. Unsatisfied with the piecemeal approach that often dominates the conservation world, the Kaplans favor a holistic approach that considers the entire landscape of any given conservation challenge. He says:

If you have an ecosystem that is supporting the cats, by definition you’ll have a thriving ecosystem. The umbrella species is a natural way to be able to have a hook on which to hang many hats. In Brazil, the work which we do on jaguars not only encompasses providing corridors for jaguars, but by definition, preserves the 700 species that live within the Pantanal—the largest collection of wild fowl in the western hemisphere.

And while Kaplan is the first to tell you that he doesn’t necessarily have all the answers, his strength is finding the people that do. Like some other funders we’ve covered in the past, Recanati-Kaplan looks to elevate great leaders and then let them lead. Take Alan Rabinowitz co-founder and CEO of Panthera—whom Kaplan affectionately refers to as the yin to his yang. A field biologist by trade, Rabinowitz is highly regarded as the leading cat conservationist in the world. It's no wonder that Panthera is considered the leading NGO in cat conservation globally.

Being surrounded by the best and brightest is central to Kaplan’s approach. And when he can’t find them, he helps create them:

We realized that if we’re going to be successful, we need more people, and so we embarked upon the most aggressive program funding post-graduate work for people doing field conservation. We will do everything from funding their research to sending them to Oxford to rise up the ranks.

Kaplan’s DIY approach isn’t limited to leadership development and capacity building. In fact, according to Kaplan, establishing his own conservation organizations was never part of the philanthropic plan—they were created out of necessity:

Panthera came about not as plan A, but as plan B. It was created to fill a void that existed and was going to continue to exist in cat conservation. All we care about is saving cats. If someone comes up with a better program, we’ll pivot to that. We don’t believe in the silos.

If that sounds like a dig at Kaplan’s counterparts, it’s not far off. Kaplan has been a vocal critic of the big environmental groups, lamenting what he sees as a bloated system rife with bureaucracy that funnels donation dollars to cover overhead costs, shrinking the pool of critical funding for programming and field work. And up until 2013-—before Kaplan launched Panthera on a path to long-term sustainability with over $6 million per year in new funding sources-—Kaplan paid 100 percent of administrative costs for both Panthera and Orianne, guaranteeing that every dollar raised would go directly to the field. And with an estimated net worth of $1 billion, Kaplan could afford it.

Still, Kaplan is more than happy to share the shade provided by the umbrella of environmental philanthropy. Where some conservationists go to great pains to distinguish themselves from the environmental movement, Kaplan embraces it as a critical tool for simplifying his causes for the masses and making the urgency more palatable/digestible.

In conversation, Kaplan often oscillates between big cat enthusiast, environmental funder, and savvy investor. His shrewd understanding of both business and conservation amounts to a giving philosophy that focuses on the long view; planting early seeds of empathy as a means toward ultimate self-sustainability.

Our objective is always that the missions that we embark upon widen their sponsorship and widen their stakeholder base so we don’t own it forever.

The species that we fund are usually the charismatic mega-fauna. Cat conservation, for example, lends itself to people who may like cats, but by preserving the cats, they’re preserving critical ecosystems and landscapes.

I’ve always believed in my business that you only really have equity in something when, if you get hit by a truck, the business keeps on going. That’s our ambition in every case for our philanthropy, too.

Perhaps in another life, Tom Kaplan would have found success as a field biologist, but through his philanthropy, he’s become an environmental leader in his own right—and no stranger to an awards ceremony. In 2012, Kaplan took home the International Wildlife Film Festival’s Hero of the Year award, and in 2014, the Kaplans were awarded the New Species Award by the African Rainforest Conservancy.

Still, Kaplan dreams of a world in which working to conserve wildlife doesn’t make you a hero; where it is the expectation rather than the exception. "I’m working toward my own redundancy. That’s when I know that I will have succeeded."