A Billionaire Donor Hits the Road to See "Forgotten" America. Here's What She Learned

We recently named Alexandra Cohen, wife of hedge funder Steve Cohen, one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Philanthropy. The Cohens co-founded the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, through which they focus on children's health, education, arts, veterans, and more. The foundation holds over a half-billion dollars in assets, but never mind that figure. The number that really matters is $12.7 billion, which is Steve Cohen's estimated net worth—a fortune that is likely to grow significantly in coming years and, we suspect, go largely to philanthropy down the line. 

Alex is a great example of a hands-on spouse taking a lead role in piloting one of the many new philanthropic juggernauts that are emerging from America's second Gilded Age. We've said it before and we'll say it again: If you want to understand today's new mega-funders, stop fixating on the man with the big name. Look at the wives who often have more time and interest to focus on the details of philanthropy. 

The Cohen's giving has soared lately, and as we've reported, the foundation recently launched the Cohen Veterans Network with a huge $275 million gift. The new Cohen Veterans Network is a nationwide affair, which is significant given that this couple has tended to focus on the Northeast where they live. In fact, three of the first four cities to host veterans clinics are located in the South and Southwest in Dallas, San Antonio, and Los Angeles.


This geographic shift also came to mind when learned about a recent "Giving Tour" that Alex Cohen embarked upon in late April, not too long after Cohen's Veterans Network announcement. Outfitted with a well-appointed RV bus and other vehicles, Alex and her staff went on a six-day bus trip from Chicago to Las Vegas, "stopping to do acts of kindness, engaging local communities, inspiring action and raising awareness for organizations that are making a positive difference in their community." Stops across a half-dozen states included the impoverished Pine Hill Indian Reservation, a Head Start center, a domestic violence program, and more. 

What's key, here, is that Alex wanted to go through the American heartland, or what is usually flyover country for wealthy elites. "We want to bring attention to the middle of the country, the states that seem to have been forgotten," she wrote in her blog, "Like many of the generous and fortunate people we know, the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation tends to focus our giving in our general vicinity. As a result, much of the money is spent on both coasts but nowhere in the middle. I hope this trip serves as an education for all of us."

Alex and her team took to social media to share their thoughts throughout this trip. New foundation staff member Chris Brown, the Cohens' son Josh and others all weighed in.  

Okay, we know what you sophisticates out there are thinking: A feel-good road trip by a billionaire from Greenwich, Connecticut, doesn't sound like a very strategic way to sharpen a philanthropic game plan. With a historic fortune to dispose of, shouldn't Alex instead be holing up with flip charts and a crack team from Bridgespan? 

In fact, though, getting out of the Acela Corridor sounds like a darn good idea. I went on a trip through California's impoverished Central Valley a few years ago. The logic was to travel through communities and meet people most affected by state budget cuts to highlight the dire problem. I saw a California that wasn't booming like Silicon Valley or Hollywood, and it's an experience that I'll remember for the rest of my life. 

In blog post that Alex Cohen wrote after the Giving Tour, she shares what she took away:

I had no idea what to expect on this trip but something amazing happened. At every stop we made, a weight was added to my heart because of the suffering I was seeing. At the same time that weight turned into a fullness, a satisfaction that there were people already addressing these issues and doing a damn good job at it with very little resources... After hearing some of the stories on our trip, I realized that these people are some of the strongest and most resilient in our country, because they have to be. We need to take our lessons from them. 

This last point—that funders need to listen more carefully to the "intended beneficiaries" of their giving—is one often made in the fancier precincts of the philanthrosphere. Well, here's a major donor who actually left the bubble and went out to do that in an extended way. Doesn't sound so hokey after all, right? 

Alex also offers some insights into her motivations as a philanthropist. She writes about her background in Washington Heights in New York City:

As a child, I worried about the neighbor who was too old to go out and get groceries. I worried about the homeless in the cold, I feared for women who walked the street alone. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to help these people. I would ask the neighbor if she needed anything, I would ask my mother to give the homeless person a dollar, and pray for the woman walking alone that she get home safely. I worked in the rummage sale store with my mother after school and made sure everything was clean and tidy for those coming in to buy things. They deserved respect as much as anyone else.

I did not come from money. My dad started out as a handy man/superintendent in the Harlem projects where I was born, then got a better job in the post office. We moved to Washington Heights shortly after. My mother was a stay at home mom who babysat many kids for a living, sometimes up to 10 at a time. Some lived with us for months depending on their parents’ situation and their parents paid what they could.

Among other things, the Giving Tour was sort of a "greatest hits" of the Cohen couple's established interests. Consider the group's stop at BASIS Charter School in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they interfaced with staff and met students. Alex wrote, "I was very impressed with the statistics of this school; I guess that is why they have a waitlist of over 1,000 kids… This should not be the case, all American children should have the right to a great education. Thank God for charter schools. "

Did Alex have some sort of charter awakening as a result of her sojourn? Hardly.

The Cohens have a longstanding interest in education reform, particularly charters. On the East Coast, they've backed networks like Achievement First, Excel Bridgeport, ConnCAN, and Connecticut Charter School Network. 

RelatedSteven A. and Alexandra M. Cohen Foundation: Grants for Charter Schools

The Giving Tour also made stops at an art museum and a pediatric hospital in Minneapolis. The Cohens are prominent art collectors. As for pediatric hospitals, that checks out too; the couple has given over $100 million to these institutions back East. The Giving Tour also made a stop at a Native American reservation and ended in Las Vegas at HELP USA which provides services for homeless veterans. A fitting bookend. 

For the time being, expect the Steve and Alex Cohen Foundation to continue with their Northeast focus. This trip, though, does reveal the ways in which the Cohens are also starting to think beyond the Northeast and establish connections in other parts of the country. The Cohen Veterans Network is one example. But the trip Alex and her team just took through the middle of the country is another.