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A California financier emerges as one of the nation’s most prolific philanthropists

Bernard Osher, called the ‘quiet giver,’ donates large sums to education and the arts.

By Paul Van SlambrouckCorrespondent / July 23, 2008

San Francisco

From a distance, the philanthropic world can look much like the for-profit world. The metrics that seem to matter most are the numbers. Big is good. Bigger is better.

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However, inside the foundations and other organizations dispensing grants, the measurement that brings the most satisfaction often runs not to the bottom line but directly to people like the single mother in southern California who was able to attend a university only because of a foundation-provided scholarship.

“Your generosity has touched not only my life, but the lives of my children,” the woman concluded in a letter to the Osher Foundation, which made her return to college for a final semester financially possible.

The man behind this act of “generosity,” and many others, is Bernard Osher, a former banker who has a passion for the arts, fly-fishing, and, in his eighth decade, is taking weekly piano lessons. He says the thing he enjoys most about sharing his life’s earnings through the foundation he began in 1977 is the gratitude expressed by recipients.

“Reading their letters is the high point of each day,” he says.

Mr. Osher has been called the “quiet philanthropist,” a reference seemingly rooted in his New England background and general lack of pretense. His philanthropic giving has gone on for decades, some of it publicly visible and some of it anonymous and without ceremony.

The “quiet” label has stuck, and it seemed perfectly apt at a ceremony earlier this year when Osher appeared alongside California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gratefully accepted a pledge of $70 million in scholarship grants for the state’s community college students. Watching respectfully from beside the podium as the governor praised the donation, Osher declined to address those gathered.

Osher does not do press interviews, though he sat down for a conversation after answering written questions submitted to him via Foundation President Mary Bitterman. Though “quiet” may accurately describe the style of this Maine-borne philanthropist, he is also engaging, cordial, and direct.

Osher has engendered enormous respect within the communities targeted by his foundation and was labeled last year the 11th most generous philanthropist in the world by BusinessWeek, which put his giving at more than $800 million. In 2006, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, he granted the foundation that bears his name $732 million, the third largest individual gift of the year in the US.

And there is more beneficence to come. Osher intends to give away all his fortune, explaining: “Although I have no heirs, I can enjoy the opportunity of helping members of several generations lead more fulfilling lives by my contributions.”