Robert Wilson Charitable Trust: New York City Grants

OVERVIEW: The Robert Wilson Charitable Trust has been a funder of environmental and civil rights causes in New York City. However, this foundation isn't very accessible to the general public. 

IP TAKE: Historical preservation and libraries have always been a favorite focus area for the foundation, so even small New York City libraries have a good chance of getting funded.

PROFILE: "I find the term giving back an offensive one. In the process of making their money, Wall Street professionals have been profoundly productive.... People who make money in this country are being more productive in making it than in giving it away." That's what Robert Wilson said in a Conde Nast Portfolio interview when asked if Wall Street is "giving back" enough. Wilson was once described as one of the greatest stock investors of the last 50 years, and to learn more about his investing style, you can read a great interview with him on The Street.

At the age of 87, in December 2013, Robert W. Wilson lept to his death from his 16th floor residence in Manhattan. His net worth peaked at $800 million, but he had given most of his money away to charity, especially to conservation groups by then.

According to an Upstart Business Journal interview, Wilson didn't really want to start a foundation at all, but he did so for the tax benefits. The Robert Wilson Charitable Trust has historically awarded grants to organizations that are a little out of the ordinary. It has favored civil rights, environmental, and historical society causes more than anything else. In the mid-2000s, environmental conservation made up a huge majority of Wilson grants. In recent years, the foundation has provided more to arts and culture organizations and cut back a bit on the environmental spending. In 2009, Wilson expanded its grantmaking program and began donating to health, religious, and public society benefit as well. In 2010, the foundation added another grant focus area for human services projects.

Regardless of the program area, the focus has almost always been on New York. Wilson started making headlines by donating $22 million to the Nature Conservatory in 2005 and $22.5 million to the New York Roman Catholic Archdiocese in 2007. Although he was a huge supporter of Catholic education in New York, some sources said that he was actually an atheist. Wilson said that he doesn't want to be just another rich white guy throwing money at poor black people to feel good about himself. He hated going to fundraiser dinners and has described the world of charity as "mundane."

Some more past local Wilson grants include $6.7 million to the New York Public Library, $6.3 million to the Whitney Museum of American Art, $4.2 million to the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, and $407,000 to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Pretty much all Wilson grants have been awarded for general operating support, as the foundation likes to put its trust fully in the judgment of its grantees. In a past year, the funder reported over $111 million in assets and gave out nearly $52 million.

Grant amounts are all over the board, with some recipients receiving checks for $50 and others for $9 million. Unfortunately, Wilson is one of those foundations that doesn't have a website, a grantseeker website, or a professional staff to get in touch with. It has not been made clear who is is running the show in Wilson's absence. The best way to contact the foundation office is by phone at 718-748-6113. 


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