Not What You'd Expect: David Einhorn’s Focus on Empathy

David Einhorn is one of those Wall St. philanthropists who may fly below most people's radar, but the Greenlight Capital founder, worth $1.2 billion, is a significant giver with an interesting, and perhaps slightly unusual philanthropic mission—“to inspire a movement of empathetic citizens who, with mutual respect and understanding, ultimately build an increasingly civil society.”

We love this goal, especially coming from a hedge fund guy who hasn't shied away from filing lawsuits to get his way, who famously beat up on Green Mountain Coffee Roasters after shorting its stock, and who called on Steve Ballmer to resign in 2011. There's even a term for what happens to companies after Einhorn shorts them and starts his bad-mouthing: they get "Einhorned." 

But whatever about Einhorn's day job. His giving really is cool stuff. In 2010, Einhorn's philanthropy started to coalesce around the idea that, as the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust’s (EFCT) motto states, “helping people get along better,” would be the most effective use of his money, and create the greatest long-term impact. After a $132,000 grant to an organization called Roots of Empathy that year, he followed it up in 2011 with a gift of just over $1 million, and a gift of $1.25 million to Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative.

Both of these programs operate on the belief that the ability to understand what other people are feeling decreases conflict, increases cooperation, and leads to positive change, and seek to teach empathy and similar skills. While these are two of the largest programs Einhorn funds in this arena, EFCT has also made grants to a handful of other programs that focus on social and emotional learning (SEL), including the RULER Approach, run through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which works with teachers and administrators to develop and integrate SEL techniques. 

Einhorn’s philosophy has also spurred his giving to other related organizations, particularly those who fight against hate, such as Not In Our Town and The Bully Project, and service organizations that bring people of different backgrounds together, like City Year, DoSomething, Repair the World, and the Interfaith Youth Core. Mixed in with these are a number of Jewish organizations (Repair the World being one), that play to Einhorn's heritage, and promote cross-cultural and interfaith understanding. 

Much of Einhorn's giving seems to be built upon work done by one of his earliest, and largest grantees, the Columbia University Brain/Gut Research Initiative, where the Einhorn family has donated more than $6 million since 2007. More recently, his funding for research in these areas has gone to Columbia's Nurture Science program, and the Greater Good Science Center at Cal Berkeley. 

Ultimately though, Einhorn's focus on empathy probably stems from his Jewish upbringing. And while it may seem at first like a less practical use of philanthropy than, say, trying to cure disease, hunger, or poverty, in a way, he is striking at something even more fundamental. The better we learn to understand each other, to put ourselves in one another's shoes, the less violence and hatred there will be, and the more likely we'll be to help each other out.