What's Behind This New, Massive Give to the LA Philharmonic?

The evolution of donor David Bohnett from an early, cautious arts funder to a full-blown, big-money LA philanthropist is now complete.

Bohnett, who made his millions after selling his GeoCities to Yahoo in the late 1990s, recently pledged $20 million to his beloved LA Philharmonic. Bohnett is the former Board Chair of Philharmonic Association and currently serves on the board and the executive committee.

His trajectory underscores how effective and innovative arts programming can create converts out of donors who might otherwise dismiss arts giving as elitist. As we noted in a previous post, Bohnett's first forays into philanthropy addressed LGBT and social justice causes. But soon he expanded to the arts, thanks in no small part his burgeoning love of the LA Phil.

Related - On Second Thought, I Love the Philharmonic: How David Bohnett Became an Arts Philanthropist

A pivot in Bohnett's journey as a donor came when he had a major "ah-ha" moment: Philanthropic giving needn't be an either-or proposition whereby a donor chooses to give money to create a more equitable society, or to give it to enrich the culture. In fact, you could do both. Bohnett realized he could help the LA Philharmonic "reach underserved communities... to help broaden the access, broaden the programming, broaden the awareness, broaden the diversity."

But while Bohnett has been a major supporter of the LA Phil across the past decade, we were nonetheless floored by the size, scope, and ambition of this recent gift, which ranks among the biggest donations to a music institution in recent years. 

The $20 million will be split in half. One half will endow the David C. Bohnett Presidential Chair. This, in and of itself, is unique. As the LA Phil's press release notes, "While the naming of a chair is common practice in major academic institutions, the endowment of a CEO position is rare in artistic organizations." The endowment is in perpetuity, no less. No matter how rocky the LA Phil's finances may become in some distant future, one thing will be certain: It will always have the funds to recruit and pay a first-rate chief executive. 

Meanwhile, the other $10 million will create the David C. Bohnett Presidential Fund for Discovery and Innovation, which has a goal of creating the model orchestra for the 21st century through innovating programming, audience development models, and an eye towards social responsibility.

But how, exactly, will they create this model?

Well, it's always said that the best predictor of the future is the past. This adage is particularly relevant in the case of the LA Phil—a close read of the announcement revealed that Bohnett's $20 million gift was "made in honor of Deborah Borda's continuing accomplishments with the Los Angeles Philharmonic."

Borda is the president and CEO of the Philharmonic and has become a kind of rock star in the arts community, and rightly so. Her tenure has been marked by, among other things, the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Frank Gehry masterpiece in downtown LA that also served as Bohnett's "Come to Jesus" moment. ("I thought, this is a signature event for the city. I love Los Angeles," he told us earlier).

Under Borda's watch the Philharmonic has also rolled out the following initiatives:

  • YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles), which provides free, after-school instrumental instruction to children in underserved communities throughout Los Angeles
  • The Dudamel Fellowship, which connects young conductors from around the world with the LA Phil to develop their craft by working with Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel
  • The Philharmonic Digital Initiatives team, which developed award-winning smart phone apps, mobile games, online music discovery tools, and live HD theatercasts

Taken in its totality, it's easy to see why Bohnett, who made his fortune in the technology world, was so inspired by Borda's leadership and cut such a massive check. Tech investors famously believe that the team is all important. That belief is definitely reflected in this gift. 

This gift serves as a reminder that Bohnett is far from tapped out after 15 years of steady giving through the David Bohnett Foundation, an amount over $50 million. Indeed, when we talked to Bohnett back in the spring, he told us that there was serious money still waiting in the wings, and that more of those funds would be available for grants in the near future. Well, it looks like he just turned that spigot on. 

And a final thought: While the dotcom era now seems like ancient history, and only people over 40 (dimly) recall GeoCities, Bohnett is just one of many philanthropists who made his big score during that time and is still going strong. Money never dies; instead it usually grows.