OVERVIEW: The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust is the philanthropic legacy of the infamous 1980s real estate icons. Since its founding in 2008, the trust has become among the top foundations in the U.S. Helmsley mostly gives to medical causes, but has a substantial place-based conservation program.
IP TAKE: Helmsley gives in four key locations, with grants going to a mix of large, global organizations and smaller, local groups based in the communities in question. Some emphasis is on marine protection and fisheries, but also on protecting land and movement building in the priority regions. Staff discourage inquiries though, so it's a bit tough to break in.
PROFILE: The Helmsley Charitable Trust began in 2008, a year after the passing of Leona Helmsley, hotelier and convicted tax evader, whose outsized wealth and personality made her famous in the 1980s. Her husband, real estate tycoon Harry Helmsley, passed in 1997 and left Leona his $5.5 billion fortune. When Leona Helmsley died, almost the entire estate was left to the Charitable Trust, leaving the causes to support in the hands of the trustees—two senior advisers to the Helmsleys and two grandchildren.
While relatively small, Helmsley’s conservation giving should not be dismissed. It has made some truly impressive grants, including a recent grant of $3 million to the National Geographic Society for its marine protected areas program. Giving is place-based in the following four regions.
The Galápagos, Ecuador
The famous islands have a unique ecosystem that was crucial to our understanding of evolution and other biological principles. It remains an imporatnt place for conservation and research, but tourism and development threaten its biodiversity. Support in this area is focused in part on protecting the National Park and Marine Reserve, stopping invasive species, and land use policies.
Baja California Sur, Mexico
This is one of the more marine-focused of Helmsley’s programs, funding work in the marine protected area of Cabo Pulmo, and globally important fishery Madagascar Bay. For more info, see our Marine profile of Helmsley here: Helmsley Charitable Trust: Grants for Marine & Rivers Conservation
This island has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, but faces a variety of threats related to poverty and development. Community leadership is key in this program, as the funder seeks to build up civil society on the ground and promote environmentally sound economic options and awareness.
Finally, there's a program focused on Myanmar, a country emerging from decades of isolation under an extremely oppressive political regime. Helmsley is funding large conservation groups and local organizations as the region prepares for an influx of foreign investments and development.
The funder tends to support very large environmental nonprofits, with multi-year, multi-million-dollar grants. But it also focuses on local organizations, with a strategic emphasis on empowering community groups on the ground, as opposed to only backing the huge global groups swooping in. As such, grant amounts also range pretty significantly, as large as $3.3 million and as small as $35,000. But most are in the mid-six-figures, and grants typically run for three-year increments.
To see a full list of grantees, click here.
The Helmsley Trust does not accept unsolicited proposals and discourages inquiries. But on the upside, it is remarkably transparent in its giving priorities and past grants. It’s also very well staffed.
- Robert A. Cook, Conservation Program Director
- Renu Saini, Conservation Program Officer
- Rosalind Becker, Conservation Program Associate
- Lillian Cheng, Conservation Program Associate