Robert W. Wilson


SOURCE OF WEALTH: Founder, Wilson Associates

FUNDING AREAS: Environment, Education, Arts & Culture

OVERVIEW: Wilson, who had promised to give away at least 70 percent of his wealth before the end of his life, died of an apparent suicide in December, 2012, following a seriously debilitating stroke. Close friends reported that he had, indeed, come very close to giving away the vast majority of his estimated $800 million, mostly to conservation organizations. He also made smaller-scale grants to education and anti-poverty initiatives.

BACKGROUND: Wilson grew up in Detroit, and went to Amherst College and also attended University of Michigan Law School briefly before going to work as a security analyst. In 1969, he founded his own hedge fund, Wilson Associates, which specialized in short sells and growth-stock investments. In 1986, he retired with $225 million, though his fortune continued to grow from his investments, making him worth over $800 million by 2000.


EDUCATION: It would be difficult to list all the organizations and causes Wilson has aided over the years. But there are several areas of focus that guided his giving habits. Recently, Catholic education topped the list. He gave $5.6 million to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York in 2010, up from the initial annual gifts of $10,000 he started making 1997. Some were puzzled by his gifts, given that he was a self-proclaimed atheist. Yet Wilson was confident, stating that he was interested in improving the state of education in New York city. “Most of what the Catholic schools teach are the three Rs,” he explained, “And they do it better than the union-controlled inner-city schools.” He supports scholarship programs, alumni support, and the reopening of schools.

His interest in education stopped at grade 12. Wilson didn't give his money to colleges, citing his belief that "the whole college and university system is bloated beyond recognition and is a great drain on the resources of this country." He wanted his money to have a "meaningful impact," which he thought he could acheive by funding the New York Public Library, the shrinking Roman Catholic school system, and other institutions that open up learning to those who need it most. The Cardinal's Scholarship Program is a perfect example of initiatives he found worthwhile.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION: His primary area of funding—eclipsing even the millions he gave to schools—was conservation. He supported small environmental charities like Rare and the New York-based American Bird Conservancy, to high profile organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund. Just prior to 2006, Wilson created four $100 million challenge grants—one each with The Nature Conservancy, World Monuments Fund, Environmental Defense, and The Wildlife Conservation Society. These organizations represent a broad view of conservation, from plant and animal diversity, to historical sites and natural resources.

ARTS & CULTURE: Wilson was known as an avid art collector, and was a member of the board of the Whitney Museum for over thirty years. He was also chairman of the board of the New York City Opera for more than a decade, though its hard to say how much he gave to either organization.

CIVIL RIGHTS: Though an openly gay atheist, there's not much in Wilson's record that indicates he was a major contributor to LGBT organizations, or organizations that promote religious freedom. He was, however, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union for more than four decades, and a strong advocate of criminal justice reform. 

LOOKING FORWARD: In the year before his death, Wilson put a substantial chunk of his remaining fortune--$47 million--into his charitable trust. The Trust made $40 million in grants that year, with nearly $50 million in assets still left to be distributed. Whether the money gets distributed quickly in large chunks, or the flow stems dramatically to ensure a small but steady stream of revenue for the organizations he was known to support, it is unlikely at this stage that we'll be seeing grants to new organizations. No word on his art collection either, but it would be surprising if it didn't go to the Whitney.


Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust

520 83rd Street, Suite 1R

Brooklyn, NY 11209

(718) 748-6113