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.
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.
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.”
Among those in that growing category of people is Geoffrey Mitchell, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley. Geoffrey’s high school, the charter Leadership High School in San Francisco, nominated him for an Osher-backed program that provides low-income students $32,000 to attend Berkeley for four years. Geoffrey is studying wildlife ecology and biology, and hopes to find ways to raise awareness of the environment among minorities.
“Without the scholarship, I couldn’t go to college,” says Geoffrey, who, along with his twin sister, was adopted and raised by a single mother.
The UC Berkeley Incentive Awards Program, which has propelled Geoffrey to new places, has dispensed some $43 million to similarly low-income high school students over its 15-year existence. The single largest donor has been Osher, who has pumped $16 million into the initiative. “If there was ever a founding parent of the program, you’d have to say it was Osher,” says Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor for student affairs at Berkeley.
Born in Biddeford, Maine, Osher managed the family’s hardware and plumbing-supply business before a stint on Wall Street at Oppenheimer & Company. From there, he migrated west and was a founding director of World Savings, which grew into one of the largest savings institutions in the country before being merged recently with Wachovia Corporation.
Though Osher and his four siblings went to college, his immigrant parents from Russia and Lithuania never had the opportunity. Osher never forgot that and notes: “I decided early on to support scholarships for people who desired education but had severely limited financial resources.”
Nearly 80 percent of Osher Foundation grants have gone to educational programs. While they vary, they all have in common the goal of making learning, in its broadest sense, possible for individuals who often don’t have the opportunity. These include students from low-income families, like Geoffrey, young adults who have left school to work or raise families and would like to return, as well as older adults who are interested in learning for its own sake.
Among students over 50, Osher has had an enormous impact. About 400 lifelong learning institutes exist in the US and Canada, most of them affiliated with colleges and universities. These noncredit, fee-based programs are often part of the community-outreach programs of universities, and thus vulnerable to cuts or even elimination during tough times. Yet Osher has made grants of more than $77 million to this field, establishing or strengthening 121 such programs across the country. His initial foray is revealing about the way he works.
Osher let it be known in 2000 that he was interested in supporting a lifelong learning program at the University of Southern Maine (USM) in Portland. So a meeting was set with a university vice president and Kali Lightfoot, who was then director of USM’s Senior College.
“We were expecting maybe a grant of $100,000. At the meeting he was very nice and cordial,” recalls Ms. Lightfoot. “At one point he stepped outside to talk with the vice president and at the end of the meeting he said, ‘OK, I’ll give you a $2 million endowment.” As an initial jump into new waters, the Osher commitment was stunning. “They took a huge risk,” says Lightfoot.
Ron Manheimer, director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, says Osher has been a “catalyst” for a surge in lifelong learning programs across the country. In addition, says Mr. Manheimer, the loose network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes has the potential for generating knowledge about best practices in the field. Indeed, Osher helped set up the National Resource Center at the University of Southern Maine in 2004 to do just that. Lightfoot is now the center’s director.
Any discussion of Osher would be incomplete without mention of his devotion to the arts, which receive about 17 percent of the foundation’s funding. For instance, Osher underwrites the PBS series “From the Top: Live from Carnegie Hall,” which features young classical musicians. Osher says he has been drawn to music since childhood. His purchase of the Butterfield & Butterfield auction house in 1970 heightened his interest in the visual arts, from which support of museum and other arts groups has flowed.
Yet even in the arts, Osher puts a strong emphasis on education. For instance, he has backed a program run by the San Francisco Symphony to strengthen music programs in public schools. The Opus program brings music instruction and supplies – everything from bows to sheet music – to 75 percent of the city’s public middle and high schools.
Brent Assink, executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, began working with Osher in 1999. “He’s a guy devoted to education, more specifically, hands-on education,” says Mr. Assink. “Barney Osher is just a great example of how much fun it can be to remain intellectually curious. He seems to thoroughly enjoy life and especially thinking about how he can make a difference.”