Kovner Foundation: New York City Grants

OVERVIEW: The Kovner Foundation gives out grants mostly in the New York area and is run by billionaire Bruce Kovner and his wife Suzie. 

FUNDING AREAS: Arts, education, public policy, opportunities for the disadvantaged

IP TAKE: The couple doesn't have a long list of annual grantees and tends to give to the same outfits each year. The money the Kovners give out is considerable, however. The foundation has a particular interest in art and education. With Kovner's recent retirement from his hedge fund firm, it's possible that their philanthropy will expand.

PROFILE: Bruce S. Kovner, the founder and former chairman of Caxton Associates, LLC, a global macro hedge fund, recently handed over the reins of his company. Despite significant success, he's kept a relatively low profile over the years. Kovner and his wife Suzie, however, serve on many boards and are active philanthropists in New York City and beyond.

Before becoming a businessman, Kovner dropped out of his Harvard Ph.D. program after a fit of writer's block. He spent several years taking all sorts of jobs while working on his writing career and also studying music at Juilliard. Even as Kovner went on to great success as a businessman, supporting the arts, specifically music, appears to be a crucial part of the couple's philanthropy.

Kovner is chairman of the Juilliard School, where he donated $60 million alone in a single yera to endow the Kovner Fellowship Program, which will pay full tuition for selected classical music students. Suzie Kovner, meanwhile, is a member of the Juilliard Drama Council. Millions of dollars have gone to Juilliard over the years. The couple has also recently endowed Juilliard's graduate program in historical performance.

Kovner is also an avid collector of books and music manuscripts. He once funded a Bible project with $2 million of his own money and his firm, Caxton, is named after the first English printer. A while back, Kovner gave Juilliard his collection of 139 original handwritten manuscripts, containing music from Mozart and Beethoven. Individually, the New York Times estimated that some pieces from his collection could fetch several million dollars on an open market.

Apart from Juilliard, Suzie also recently became a trustee at Carnegie Hall Society where between $1 and $6 million in Kovner support went. The gift helped support the Studio Towers Renovation Project which will create new spaces dedicated to music education while also refurbishing Carnegie Hall’s backstage areas. In the past, the Carnegie Hall Corporation received $100,000 from the couple.

Kovner is a vice chair at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which has also seen big money from the Kovners. They made a $20 million gift in a past year and gave $2.5 million the year prior. Other outfits under the Lincoln Center umbrella including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center have also received funds, though on a considerably smaller scale.

The couple is also deep into education. Kovner is a founder of the School Choice Scholarship Foundation, which awards scholarships to financially disadvantaged elementary school kids in New York City, offering 1,300 scholarships of up to $1,400. Children in poorly functioning public schools can use these scholarships to attend any private school (that sum will cover nearly all of the tuition at most Catholic schools), with a minimum commitment from the foundation of three years' worth of support. 

As Kovner puts it, "We are doing this because of the importance of making choice available to kids who don't have real alternatives. The public school system hasn't provided good opportunities for these kids; so we think the private schools should be given a chance to help out."

Kovner and his wife have also supported charter schools. In recent years, Success Charter Schools and New York Charter Schools Association, which runs several charter schools in Albany, have received money. And the couple has also supported the Foundation for Education Reform with a recent grant of $200,000.

While education reform has become a nonpartisan cause, it's also worth noting that in Washington D.C., Kovner is a board member (and former board chair) of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, where millions of dollars have gone in recent years. 

Apart from education and arts, the couple's past grants in other areas have only included the Morgan Library and Museum, New York Public Radio and little else. At the end of a recent year, the foundation had more than $239million in assets and gave away more than $12 million that year. Both assets and giving are up considerably from past years. With Kovner's recent retirement from Caxton, it's possible that the couple starts to ramp up their philanthropy. After all, for all their giving, they've yet to make a dent in a fortune estimated to be around $5 billion. 


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