Three Things Guiding Jim Greenbaum As He Spends Down

Jim Greenbaum is giving away the majority of his fortune in his lifetime, and for him, it’s all about preventing the most suffering he can in that time. As he ramps up annual giving, Greenbaum has some high standards for grantees. He offered us some insight into his decision-making. 

Greenbaum made his wealth at the helm of the telecom company Access Long Distance starting in the 1980s, but then retired in 1999 to focus on humanitarian philanthropy, work he’s said he always planned to pursue.

The Greenbaum Foundation has historically given away around $2 million a year, but since his decision in the past year to spend down the foundation's assets, Greenbaum says that number will quickly increase toward $5 million. About 75 percent of that goes to human rights work, and the rest to animal welfare.

The focus on the human side is preventing suffering of women and children, mostly through giving outside of North America. Greenbaum—with his wife Lucie Berreby-Greenbaum, who oversees animal programs—handles all giving, relying on the philosophy of Effective Altruism, or using evidence and reason to have the biggest impact possible.

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The foundation is currently only looking for new grantees in international work securing basic human rights for women, and they rarely fund unsolicited proposals. But via email, we asked Greenbaum about the rationale behind his philanthropy. Here are a few takeaways: 

1. Efficiency and innovation are crucial. Greenbaum is all about tangible results, and he doesn’t typically fund huge, well-established players with a lot of support from other philanthropists. “If an organization is doing work that is not cost efficiently saving lives or reducing suffering, or significantly improving the human condition using a new and novel cost efficient approach, please don’t waste my time.”

2. Change comes from within a community. Most of the groups they fund are working within a community, as opposed to outsiders imposing their own values. “The facilitators themselves should be members of the communities or ethnic groups in which they are hoping to facilitate change. Communities are given the tools to create change from within.”

3. It’s all about the leadership. Greenbaum rarely funds a group if he hasn't met its executive director, and his decision often hinges on the drive and ability of a group’s leadership. Groups the Greenbaum Foundation funds tend to have founders who are still running things, and who live by their work. “It is not a job to them, but a burning, passionate obsession that drives them to work to the best of their abilities to make the world a better place. They are also extremely capable leaders and administrators with unquestioned integrity. A great idea or organization will only succeed with a capable leader.”  

He’s even found himself backing a group that doesn’t quite fit his main areas of focus, if he’s been highly impressed with the executive director.