OVERVIEW: The now-deceased Robert W. Wilson was a major funder of wildlife protection. Singlehandedly cutting checks to favored causes with neither a professional staff behind him nor a website to promote him, he shared his wealth with conservation groups far and wide, although organizations in his home state of New York accounted for the largest share. No word as of yet what will become of his remaining assets.
IP TAKE: Wilson is gone, but the trust is still operating. It's difficult, however, to access any public information about it.
PROFILE: In 2003, retired hedge-fund manager Robert W. Wilson decided to make a major investment in the greater good: He used the better part of his personal fortune to create a charitable trust bearing his name. The Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust never created a website, never published an email address, and never hired a full-time staff. The whole operation pretty much began and ended with Wilson himself and his personal quest to give away 70% of his money before he died.
The investor-philanthropist committed suicide on Dec. 23, 2013, and left his trust behind. Wilson was an interesting donor, not only because he had no heirs, but also because he was an atheist libertarian without a lot of devotion to political causes (although he has made some controversial conservative donations). He's been quoted as saying he wants to "try and preserve things that, but for my money, might go away forever." What this really meant was that he was set on making the most of his remaining time on Earth by making enormous grants to a few pet causes.
Wildlife protection was among them. He gave more than $1.6 million over time to the New York-based American Bird Conservancy, for example, and $10.3 million to the New York division of Rare, a nonprofit that trains and supports environmental activists worldwide.
Wilson was a New York City resident, and the majority of his grants went to New York City organizations. There's even a Robert W. Wilson Aquatic House in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
But this was no hard-and-fast rule. He also gave generously to the Washington, DC-based Wildlife Conservation Society, manager of a worldwide network of zoos. In fact, at the time of his death, he was the organization’s biggest donor in its 115-plus-year history. The Environmental Defense Fund, another DC-area group, received a $100 million gift from him. He was also a supporter of the Nature Conservancy, whose headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia, but whose operations are global.
All grants were (and still appear to be) by invitation-only. Unsolicited applications weren’t accepted. Frankly, they were practically not even possible, given that the absence of a website, email address, or staff contacts made Wilson’s operation a very difficult one to access.