Billionaire financier Carl Icahn was named one of our Ten Philanthropists to Watch in 2015, and for good reason. He's worth nearly $25 billion, he's 79, and he's a Giving Pledge signatory. Over twenty years ago, Icahn decided that nearly all his assets would go to charity. He's a lot richer now, and—if he so chose—could create one of the biggest foundations in the U.S.
What's Icahn planning? And where has his money been going so far?
His top objective is maintaining America's position of economic leadership in the world by bolstering education. In Icahn's benign narrative of his career, he's worked at boosting undervalued companies and, in so doing, "unlocking shareholder value" and making the U.S. more competitive.
In a similar way, Icahn had said: "America's children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, are in a sense undervalued assets." Icahn wants to change that—not just through ensuring better education, but also by addressing the poverty that too many kids grow up in.
At the same time, though, Icahn is big on backing medical research, like so many funders these days.
How are these interests playing out so far?
That's a complicated question to answer, because Icahn and his wife Gail haven't centralized their giving the way some donors have. Instead, they've moved money through multiple vehicles. You'd think the Carl C. Icahn Foundation would be the most important of these, but it's not. That foundation only held around $29 million in assets in 2013 and hasn't been giving out a lot of money.
Here are a few key things to know about Icahn philanthropy.
1. So far, most giving has focused on New York
Icahn may have a grand national vision for his philanthropy, but so far, most his money has stayed in New York City. Icahn grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, and he attended public schools. He's also lived and worked in New York all his life. So it makes sense that his philanthropy has focused there. The question is when Icahn will broaden out to other places. Beyond a $19 million one-off gift for polio in 2013, we haven't seen a lot of Icahn money leave the city.
2. Icahn has been a strong supporter of charters
One of Icahn's giving vehicles is the Foundation for a Greater Opportunity, which he uses to do a lot of his education grantmaking. Central to this foundation is supporting the Icahn Charter Schools, a group of seven charter schools in the Bronx. Millions have gone to these schools, and the foundation had $200 million in assets in 2013.
Icahn also funded the outfit Prep for Prep, which describes itself as a "leadership development program that offers promising students of color access to a private school education and life-changing opportunities."
Of his education strategy, Icahn has said that he "takes the same approach to education as I do to corporate boards." His approach includes motivating teachers and principals with bonuses for good performance, reducing waste while increasing accountability and not micromanaging.
3. A third Icahn outfit focuses on social services
So far we've talked about the Carl C. Icahn Foundation, and the Foundation for Greater Opportunity. There's also a third Icahn outfit called the Children's Rescue Fund. Through the Children's Rescue Fund, the Icahns established the 65-unit Icahn House in the Bronx, which assists with the transition of homeless single women and their families, and the Icahn House East and Icahn House West, which are homeless shelters.
Social services are definitely of interest to this funder, and through their foundation, the couple has also supported such outfits as the Bowery Mission, and Citymeals on Wheels.
4. Big money has gone for health and medical research
The Icahns have been huge supporters of the Mt. Sinai medical network. In the last few years, Icahn has donated more than $200 million to Mount Sinai Hospital and School of Medicine. Along the way, the school was renamed Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which also houses the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology. The Mt. Sinai Adolescent Center and Mt. Sinai Children's Center have also been funded modestly.
In addition, recent sums have gone to Yeshiva University Albert Einstein School of Medicine; the school received around $1 million annually in recent years. Modest sums have also gone to Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to "transforming mental health care for the world's children to enable them to reach their full potential."
We'll be watching Icahn closely. This is a funder who's given away many millions, but so far he's been quite local and very focused on his own projects. The big question is when Icahn will make the leap to setting up a stronger philanthropic operation that has the capacity to do what's he has promised: Give away one of the largest fortunes on Wall Street.