The 9 Top Finance Guys in Environmental Philanthropy

A striking number of leaders from the financial sector have become big players in environmental philanthropy. While we write all the time about these funders, I can't say we yet have a grand theory of "why Wall Street guys care about nature."

And maybe no theory is needed. Given the vast fortunes accumulated in recent years and how environmental issues keep getting hotter (along with the Earth itself), it's no surprise that more Wall Street money is flowing into this space. 

If all this is new to you, you've clicked on the right article, because here I offer a quick rundown of the leading environmental philanthropists from finance. 

1. NATHANIEL SIMONS

Simons is the guy behind the Sea Change Foundation, which is one of the biggest funders in the climate and energy space, giving out $55 million in 2012. He's the son of James Simons, the math whiz who founded Renaissance Technologies and built the $12 billion fortune that bankrolls Sea Change. But it would be wrong to dismiss Nat Simons as merely an heir, since he's also spent most of his career in finance -- both at his dad's operation and running his own investments. We take a closer look at Simons here

Sea Change is a super low-profile foundation that provides little information to the public. Which is why we've drilled in to what it's doing as much as we can with an analysis of its climate funding and a profile of its executive director, Stephen Colwell

2. TOM STEYER

Steyer is an obvious for this list, as a retired California hedge fund billionaire focused full time on philanthropic and political giving aimed at moving the needle on climate change. He's put up big money for this fight, including some major gifts for energy research and other grants run through the foundation he started with his wife, Kathyrn Taylor -- the TomKat Charitable Trust, which we examine here

That said, Steyer isn't yet in the game of large-scale and professionalized grantmaking, and TomKat is a lean operation. This is a funder who's been more focused on big bets and changing the politics of climate change than on bankrolling a wide range of environmental groups. See our full profile of Steyer here.  

3. DAVID GELBAUM

Gelbaum has probably given away more money to environmental causes than any other person from finance -- at least $200 million alone to the Sierra Club and another $250 million for land conservation in the West. But this brainy hedge fund winner has done almost all his giving anonymously, mainly through Wellspring Advisors. What's more, Gelbaum is said to be "done with philanthropy. He’s already given away most of his fortune and lost much of the rest." Still, Gelbaum remains engaged in business and has a track record of winning big, so who knows what the future holds. See our full profile of Gelbaum here

4. JULIAN ROBERTSON

Robertson was once known as "wizard of Wall Street," back when he ran the world's biggest hedge fund. Now in early 80s, he's well along in life and in his philanthropy. His two foundations give out over $100 million a year, and the Robertson Foundation is engaged in pretty large-scale environment philanthropy, with grantmaking focused on climate change as well as marine conservation. Robertson's giving is very opaque and hard to penetrate, but we offer a good overview of what he's up to here, with links out to more detailed analysis of his environmental giving. 

5. LOUIS BACON

This New York hedge fund billionaire has become known for his land conservation efforts, most notably preserving 90,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado. He also has a foundation, the Moore Charitable Foundation, which engages in grantmaking. One of its top priorities is protecting oceans, bays, rivers, and wetlands. 

But don't look for big grantmaking dollars from this outfit. The foundation is small both in staffing and its level of grantmaking, and focuses on only a handful of geographic areas. (See our profile of the foundation here.) On the other hand, Bacon has barely scratched the surface of a fortune estimated at $1.6 billion and, at 56, has plenty of time to make more money. See our full profile of Bacon here

6. LARRY LINDEN

Linden scored big at Goldman Sachs and has since been harnessing his fortune, and business savvy, to protect natural areas. Most recently, he and his foundation, the Linden Trust, helped orchestrate a major deal to protect a 150 million-acre chunk of Amazon rainforest, which we wrote about here. While Linden likes to get hands-on, his foundation does make some major grants to conservation organizations, even though it's a pretty lean shop. We profile this funder here

 

7. HANK PAULSON

After he helped save the global economy and retired as U.S. Treasury Secretary, Paulson was able to focus more time on what he really loves to do: birdwatching and hiking. Of course, also, he has a big pile of money from his years at Goldman Sachs and he and his wife, Wendy, have a foundation, the Bobolink Foundation, which gives between $3 million and $8 million in most years primarily to wildlife protection with a focus on birds. Wendy Paulson is actually the bottom line on the couple’s philanthropy, making most of the decisions. We have a full profile of Hank here and Wendy here, and take a close look at the Bobolink foundation here

8. CARL FERENBACH

Ferenbach made his fortune through the Boston-based private equity firm Berkshire Partners. Since his retirement in 2012, he has devoted much of his attention to environmental philanthropy. He's chairman of the Environmental Defense Fund and runs two green foundations and a third outfit that buys and preserves old Vermont farmland. Ferenbach is no billionaire, so we're not talking about lots of big grants to lots of players. But there's definitely money going out the door. See our full profile of Carl Ferenbach here

9. RAY DALIO

Dalio is likely to be much higher on this list in the years to come. Why? Because, after George Soros, he's the second richest hedge fund guy in America -- with a fortune most recently estimated at $14.8 billion -- and a well-established passion for protecting the environment. Dalio sits on the board of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, where he has donated at least $3.2 million He's also given to a variety of conservation and parks organizations over the years. Look for much bigger giving to come from this environmentalist and Giving Pledge signatory. 

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Did I miss anyone? Almost certainly so, because there's a lot of big finance fortunes out there that fly under the radar and clearly a lot of interest in environmental issues among the leaders of this sector. 

Oh, and one other thing: Wall Street is going to be under water some day, with nobody making any money, unless humans change their relationship with nature -- and sooner rather than later.