A Lean Funder Ramps Things Up, With a Focus on Acute Human Suffering

We write a lot about the ever-growing world of living donors who are doing philanthropy differently than earlier generations of donors. Many made their fortunes at relatively young ages, as entrepreneurs or innovators in finance, and they tend to be very hands-on. Quite a few are intent on giving away all their money while they're still living, yet doing so with minimal staff and organizationswhich isn't easy. The tech leader Sean Parker recently wrote something of a manifesto that summed up this approach. 

Related: From Tech's Sean Parker, a Strong Manifesto for Philanthropy—With Some Familiar Ideas

One such donor we're keeping an eye on is Jim Greenbaum. He made his wealth with a telecom company, Access Long Distance, starting in the 1980s, but then retired in 1999 to focus on philanthropy. About 75 percent of his giving goes to global causes, with a focus on alleviating acute human suffering, and the rest to animal welfare.

When speaking with Inside Philanthropy last year, Greenbaum talked about a few salient ideas that guide his grantmaking: the belief that efficiency and innovation are crucial; that change comes from within a community; and that leadership is key. The Greenbaum Foundation isn't a very big funderits annual grantmaking has been around $2 million, and now it's aiming to ramp up to $5 millionbut it exemplifies a certain approach to philanthropy. 

Related: Three Things Guiding Jim Greenbaum As He Spends Down

IP recently talked to Jim Greenbaum to see how things were shaping up as the foundation scales up its grantmaking. Here are a few highlights to pass along.

First off, the Greenbaum Foundation is lean. And by lean, we mean it basically has two employees—Jim Greenbaum and his wife, Lucie Berreby-Greenbaum. Though he spoke of the very real possibility of expanding just a bit, especially as the foundation’s grantmaking is ramping up, it’s unlikely that the expansion will involve more than a few people. One of the motivations for keeping it small is that the fewer dollars Greenbaum doles out for salaries means the more dollars available to alleviate acute human suffering around the world.


Second, Greenbaum is very focused on being a catalyst funder, one that plays an early role in getting organizations or projects on path to operating at scale. He says, “The goal is that eventually, if they get big enough, and are doing well enough that my monies aren’t needed there, then I pull back.”

That strategy makes a lot of sense for smaller funders, and it's one that we're seeing more young foundations with more modest grantmaking budgets embrace. That includes two funders also in the global giving space, the Pershing Square Foundation and the Peery Foundation. (Greenbaum is connected with both those foundations through Big Bang Philanthropy, a small group of global funders with a shared worldview.)

Over the years, Greenbaum has worked with organizations that don’t have big budgets, and has found that his foundation's level of support can go a long way. “We’re able to move enough with $100,000 to help give them that guidance to where they leverage that money to where they get enough money for their projects.”

As for sustainability, Greenbaum is a realist. “The areas that I’m working in are probably not going to be sustainable, ever...” Greenbaum elaborated on this a bit more as we spoke in depth about the foundation’s human trafficking work:

It’s like I’m putting a Band-Aid on a patient that has open wounds all over the place. And every time I put a  Band-Aid  on, there’s another wound opened up somewhere else. It’s a never-ending battle, but it’s still gotta be done.

One metric Greenbaum thinks about a lot is dollars-to-lives-saved. While that metric may feel cold, it has a lot of traction these days with global philanthropists—whether among smaller funders looking to stretch their dollars or major ones like Bloomberg and Gates that want to bring as much rigor as possible to large-scale grantmaking. Jim Greenbaum puts it like this: “How many lives am I saving versus every dollar we’re spending per person?” This question is central to Greenbaum's philanthropy. 

Related: Body Count: Mike Bloomberg's Killer Formula for Effective Philanthropy

Using Molly Melching’s organization Tostan as a reference, Greenbaum refers to it as one of the best NGOs on the planet, but “grossly underfunded.”

Molly’s program, Tostan, it transformed the entire society. At $15 to $20 per person, and that’s spread over three years, they literally transformed the entire social fabric, and the value system of an entire culture, village by village. To this day, I have yet to find anything else in the world like it.

If there were one key guiding Greenbaum’s giving foundation-wide, it would be that he goes to where the pain is focusing on funding organizations that address acute human suffering. He admits that this is a “moving target,” and it can present some challenges. However, the foundation has shown its dexterity in this arena over the years. (You can take a look at the causes and groups it's supported here.)

We'll keep watching as even more money goes out the door in coming years. 

Related: Greenbaum Foundation: Grants for Global Development