Billions: After an Historic Gift, Where is Cohen Philanthropy Going?

Wall Street billionaire Steve Cohen and his wife Alexandra have been moving plenty of money out of the door lately via their family foundation. The couple's philanthropy includes supporting children's hospitals in the Northeast, but they're also engaged in the education reform space and work with the Robin Hood Foundation. Art is another interest. And they're concerned about veterans in a big way.

The couple's gifts—backstopped by a $12 billion hedge fund fortune—have been growing, often hitting eight figures. For example, they gave $75 million to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in order to build a wing dedicated to newborns and their mothers, and $17 million to create the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Veterans Center for the Study of Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury at NYU Langone Medical Center. 

A lot of the couple's giving is personal. Alex was born into a working class family in Washington Heights and knows how hard it can be for kids to rise from such backgrounds. This explains the couple's keen interest in education. When it comes to veterans, Cohen's son joined the Marine Corps late last decade and was deployed in Afghanistan for a time; his father served in the Pacific during World War II.

Cohen has also explored some veterans issues through the Robin Hood Foundation, where he teamed up with Retired Admiral Michael Mullen to co-chair the foundation's Veterans Advisory Board. The family also works with the Bob Woodruff Foundation and Children of Fallen Patriots, which provides college scholarships and educational counseling to military children who have lost parents in combat. Then, of course, there's the couple's gift to NYU on PTSD.

Now comes news of a recent $275 million pledge from Steve Cohen to support military veterans and their families by opening up free mental health clinics around the country. As far as we know, that's the largest gift ever made by a private individual toward veterans. And it's also one of the larger gifts ever made for mental health.

The gift places Steve and Alex Cohen among the leading philanthropists of the moment, a couple with growing ambitions to make things happen. After all, it's one thing to write a large check to a large hospital. It's quite another—and much harder—to create a new national network of clinics from scratch. This is is major league giving. (There's a reason we named Alex one of the 50 most powerful women in philanthropy last month.)

Yet in all the coverage of this massive veterans gift, few people noticed that Cohen philanthropy has turned a corner or asked what else might be coming down the line. That's hard to say for sure, but the sheer size of the Cohens' new commitment is striking. It's a reminder of just how much money this couple has to work with. For reference, we're talking about a couple with three times the assets of the Rockefeller Foundation. While they haven't signed the Giving Pledge yet, it seems clear the Cohens are inclined to part with a significant chunk of their wealth. (Really, what else can you do with that kind of money?)

The new Cohen Veterans Network will treat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions free of charge. Over the next half-decade, the Cohen Veterans Network aims to open around two dozen clinics. The first four clinics, located in New York, Dallas, San Antonio, and Los Angeles, will open by July. 

Of this gift, Steve Cohen said, "The wounds of war are serious. It is not easy to serve your country in combat overseas and then come back into society seamlessly, especially if you are suffering. These men and women have paid an incredible price, and it’s important that this country pays back that debt."

If $275 million wasn't enough, Cohen is also pledging an additional $30 million through a sister organization called Cohen Veterans Bioscience  for research programs.

Other funders have lately addressed mental health. Not too long ago, Bay Area philanthropists Bill and Susan Oberndorf gave a $25 million gift to the University of California-San Francisco. We've written about a $20 million research gift by Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund that went to UCSF, too.

Related:Is Philanthropy Helping to Usher in an Age of Enlightenment for Psychiatric Research?

Individual donors working this interest area might be more likely to give big, as mental health doesn't get nearly as much attention as, say, cancer research. This is a great place for philanthropy to fill some gaps. Veterans issues are another rising interest area for donors, who are stepping in to fulfill glaring unmet needs. So the Cohens have found a nice twofer, here, worthy of a mega-gift.

Now for the usual caveat: What does all this largesse have to do with the insider trading investigation of Cohen's hedge fund? (A topic freshly on people's minds thanks to the TV show Billions.) Well, we don't really know if that's a big driver, since the Cohens were big donors before the feds showed up with warrants at SAC Capital.

Anyway, at this point, the exact motives seem less important than the scale and substance of Cohen giving. Formerly disgraced financier Michael Milken went on to become an effective top leader in philanthropy. It's safe to say that Steve Cohen is heading in that direction, too.

Related: A Path to Redemption? The Future of Steve Cohen's Philanthropy