Hansjörg Wyss has mostly been known as one of the billionaires buying up acreage to protect the wild American West. But his philanthropy has been expanding and becoming increasingly difficult to pigeonhole.
The footprint of the Swiss medical device billionaire and his foundation has been increasing in the past couple of years, as his giving has spread into protecting mountains in Romania, elephants and rhinos in Africa, and fisheries in Peru and Canada.
Wyss doesn’t get as much attention as pillars of conservation like MacArthur, Packard or Moore. But he probably should.
His latest project brings the Swiss conservationist to the Amazon. The Wyss Foundation just announced a $4 million investment for conservation efforts in the Peruvian Amazon, through the multi-donor initiative the Andes Amazon Fund, which seeks to create new protected areas in the Amazon’s headwaters. The fund recently helped establish a 3.3 million acre national park in Peru. The announcement marks the foundation’s entry into philanthropy in South America, which is expected to grow in coming years. We'll be keeping an eye on this work, as well as that of other funders who care about the Amazon.
Hansjörg Wyss rarely gives interviews, and while the reclusive donor’s philanthropic impact is not secret, it’s easy to underestimate at a glance. His Wyss Foundation has around $2 billion in assets, which is nothing to shake a stick at, but his personal net worth is more than $6 billion.
Western land has always been his calling card, and Wyss is known for moves like his $35 million donation to help purchase 310,000 acres of land in Montana. But he’s always given large sums to groups like Trout Unlimited and the Wilderness Society. He’s donated hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research at campuses like Harvard, and been a regular donor to progressive causes.
He generally keeps a lower profile, employs a smaller staff, and appears to give less heavy-handed programmatic direction than the juggernaut philanthropies mentioned above, but in recent years, has been wading into their territory.
Ocean conservation is one of the hottest fields right now among the world’s mega-donors, including Wendy and Eric Schmidt, Paul Allen, and Gordon and Betty Moore. Amazon protection, too, is a preferred cause of huge foundations like Moore and MacArthur.
Wyss will be one to watch closely in coming years, as his philanthropy shows no signs of slowing down. Wyss is now 80, divorced, has only one daughter, and—you guessed it—signed the Giving Pledge to give most of his fortune away in his lifetime.