A Yogurt Tycoon Steps Up His Philanthropy, Going Where Other Funders Won't

While over $600 billion sits in the endowments of U.S. foundations, and the Forbes 400 has a combined net worth of $2.3 trillion, American funders haven't been able to spare much money to address one of the worst humanitarian crises in two decades: the civil war in Syria, which has generated over 130,000 deaths and millions of refugees. 

Two days ago, we published a piece on how funders had dropped the ball on Syria. Yesterday, Hamdi Ulukaya pledged $2 million to the UNHCR and IRC the aid Syrian refugees, making us feel somewhat better. It's the biggest gift we know of to alleviate human misery around Syria's borders on a scale hard to fathom. 

Ulukaya is the Turkish-born founder of Chobani yogurt, which has turned the yogurt market upside down since showing up on store shelves just a few years ago. It's now among the top selling yogurts in the U.S., and Ulukayawho lives in upstate New Yorkis a billionaire. 

So why is Ulukaya jumping into an overseas catastrophe even as some of the biggest names in U.S. philanthropy sit on the sidelines? 

Well, for starters, Ulukaya is Kurdish and grew up on a farm in eastern Turkey, a region now flooded with Syrian Kurds fleeing the latest advances by ISIS. Some 180,000 people have fled to Turkey in recent weeks from just one Kurdish town in Syria, Kobani. These people need food, shelter, toilets, and more as winter approaches. Relief agencies have been issuing desperate appeals for help, calls which have mostly fallen on deaf ears within the executive suites of top U.S. foundations. 

The Kurds, who rank as one of the largest stateless groups in the world, don't have many friends in powerful places and have been kicked around for many decades. So it's advantageous to have an American billionaire on their side. 

And Ulukaya is no ordinary billionaire. He's built Chobani as a socially responsible business that also dedicates 10 percent of its post-tax profits to philanthropy, a very high level of corporate giving that comes directly out of Ulukaya's pocket, since he owns 100 percent of the company. (So far, this hasn't translated into big money, just $1.5 million in 2012, presumably because the company has been investing so heavily in growth.) 

And clearly, given that he stands virtually alone among super-wealthy Americans in putting up big money to help Syrian refugees, Ulukaya is no ordinary philanthropist. A few years ago, he made a similar large gift of $1 million through the Chobani Foundation during a famine in Somalia, another horrific crisis that most U.S. funders ignored. 

Ulukaya is still relatively new to philanthropy, which helps explain gifts like these—that is, big money to alleviate acute human suffering and now

You see, most top foundations fancy themselves too sophisticated for such giving. Their philanthropy is guided by strategic blueprints drawn up by brainy consultants and Ph.D staffers, following multi-year grantmaking plans aimed at achieving the milestones for impact. There's not a lot of room for spontaneity here or, um, empathy, at least in real time.

A meteor could wipe out Cleveland and many of these funders would barely notice, just as the untold misery of millions of Syrians has hardly registered. 

I know: This is largely how it should be. You can't chase every ambulance that goes by, and funders should strive for systemic change (as we argue here all the time at IP). But there should also be slack in the system to respond to human catastrophes. 

And one of the great things about philanthropyespecially now, in this Second Gilded Ageis that newcomers like Hamdi Ulukaya show up regularly and do their giving the way an ordinary person might: They see suffering and take action to reduce it. 

A look at the Chobani Foundation's list of grants in 2012 shows a preference for human service organizations in its U.S. giving, too. 

That focus may already be changing, judging by the foundation's public goals, which emphasize nurturing entrepreneurs and improving food choices in low-income communities. And this is how the story often goes: Philanthropists come to think more strategically over time, especially as they talk to more consultants and staff up their foundations. 

But let's hope that Hamdi Ulukaya is a guy who knows how to mix and match. Hopefully, even as his giving gets more sophisticated and strategic, he never forgets that someone with his wealth is uniquely positioned to act fast in the face of disaster. 

“Chobani” means shepherd in Turkish, and there sure is no shortage of people in this world of pain who need someone to look out for them.