Stanley Druckenmiller was once one of Wall Street’s most successful hedge fund managers, posting annual returns that averaged 30%. But in 2010, the former deputy of George Soros converted his operation to a family office and started building up his philanthropy.
More than a decade later, the Druckenmiller Foundation sits comfortably among the 100 largest grantmakers in the country, having doled out more than $350 million since 2017. Led by the 69-year-old Stanley and his wife, Fiona, a former securities analyst and founder of a luxury jewelry studio and art gallery, the philanthropy had $1.9 billion in assets in fiscal year 2021 (one estimate puts its current size at more like $2.7 billion), and in recent years, has granted about $100 million annually.
Given the institution’s heft and the couple’s much greater fortune, which could be as large as $10.1 billion, the Druckenmillers and their foundation are key players to watch. We’ve had our eye on their giving for years now, and gave them a spot on the inaugural IP Power List in 2021. It feels like a good time to take a deeper dive into the couple’s grantmaking to date.
One thing is clear: The foundation doesn’t have much of a public profile, with no website, and only makes news for the occasional mega gift. To get a sense of the founders’ passions and the foundation’s operations to date, I had a conversation with Druckenmiller late last year, and spent some time sifting through tax filings and past coverage of its grantmaking.
The portrait that emerged is of a low-overhead operation that largely sends multimillion-dollar checks to massive and established organizations in two states — New York and Pennsylvania — where the couple have deep roots. Druckenmiller says their giving is focused on three main buckets: economic mobility, the environment and health. In terms of how they choose priorities, the criteria are not that different from his approach to investing. The Druckenmillers are looking to make big investments that will yield results, and strong leadership is critical.
The biggest awards go to nonprofits working with low-income children and families, hospitals and universities, particularly ones once attended by Druckenmillers. Environmental organizations, especially the Environmental Defense Fund, are another major focus. And the couple also like to give out modest scholarships for caddies at one of Druckenmiller’s favorite golf courses.
Read on to learn about the six things that stuck out to me in my review of the Druckenmillers’ grantmaking history.
The couple likes to make big bets
Nearly all the checks cut by the Druckenmiller Foundation carry a lot of zeros. Million-dollar-plus awards accounted for about 97% of the operation’s grantmaking in recent years, and the foundation’s average grant size is $2.1 million, according to 990 number cruncher Instrumentl.
As Bridgespan has observed, the couple are partial to mega bets, including two $100 million pledges. In 2009, the foundation committed that sum to New York University to establish a neuroscience institute. Last May, it pledged the same amount to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The foundation also has often doubled and tripled down on favorite grantees, like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which received $79 million from the couple between 2017 and 2021.
Another favorite grantee is Blue Meridian Partners, which was awarded $151 million over that span. The antipoverty collaborative has been able to recruit a lot of Druckenmiller-level donors, including the foundations of other billionaire investors like David Tepper and Stephen Mandel Jr., as well as more-recognizable tech barons like Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates and Sergey Brin. Those backers have allowed Blue Meridian to think big, as my colleague Connie Matthieson put it in a profile last year.
In between these seven- and eight-figure awards, the Druckenmillers also cut a lot of relatively minor checks, many just $4,500 or $8,500. Such awards are scholarships for student caddies at the Oakmont Country Club, a renowned Pittsburgh institution that Forbes named among the “top 25 most exclusive” golf clubs in the United States. The club has an event called the “Druckenmiller Cup” named after the financier.
The foundation operates on a shoestring — and gives without strings
The Druckenmiller Foundation appears to run an extremely lean operation. Expenses made up just 2.2% of grantmaking in 2020 and in recent years, its tax filings have listed no employees. Expenses, it’s always worth emphasizing, are not necessarily good or bad. Small-scale and international grantmaking, for instance, are critical forms of nonprofit support, but often more cost-intensive. At the same time, a lot of quality philanthropy happens with very little overhead.
For the couple’s foundation, the favored formula includes a lot of unrestricted grantmaking. In recent years, all of the foundation’s awards, other than scholarships, have been for general operating support. That’s long been the practice for the couple. A 2011 analysis by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy of foundations that gave 100% of awards in the form of unrestricted grants ranked the Druckenmillers’ operation as one of the two largest in the nation.
Where they donate, the Druckenmillers frequently join the boards
It’s common for philanthropists to join the boards of the organizations they support, and that’s very much the case for the Druckenmillers. Stanley Druckenmiller serves on the boards of Harlem Children’s Zone, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Environmental Defense Fund. All three groups have received millions in grants from the Druckenmillers. Stanley also served for several years as a trustee for the Center for Strategic and International Studies — a favored think tank among financiers and Fortune 500 types — and the Kasparov Chess Foundation.
Fiona Druckenmiller, meanwhile, is a member of the boards of New York University and the university’s medical center, NYU Langone Health. NYU has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the couple’s largesse. She’s also an honorary trustee of the American Museum of Natural History.
Big donations flow to the Druckenmillers’ alma maters
Stanley and Fiona have three adult daughters: Tess, Sarah and Hannah. The schools they attended have received millions in awards from the couple’s foundation for decades, including some recent checks.
Take grantmaking from 2017 to 2021 as an example. Tess is a singer-songwriter who studied math and computer science at Brown University, which received $5 million from the family. Sarah got her bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, which received $1 million. Hannah earned hers from Stanford University, which received $4.2 million, and received a Ph.D. in agricultural and resource economics from University of California, Berkeley, which landed $6 million.
Fiona and her daughters — or at least Tess and Sarah — all attended an elite K-12 all-girls private school in New York, the Spence School, whose alumni include Gwyneth Paltrow and Marjorie Merriweather Post, the now-deceased owner of General Foods. The school received $5.2 million from the foundation over the same five-year span.
Look further back into the foundation’s history and many of these totals rise substantially. The sum of awards to Brown, Spence, Stanford and Bowdoin, Stanley’s alma mater, all reach into the tens of millions of dollars. Bowdoin, for instance, has a science facility called Druckenmiller Hall, named after the billionaire’s grandfather.
By far the most favored educational institution is the school and medical research centers run by New York University, where Sarah earned her medical degree and Fiona got an MBA. As earlier noted, the Druckenmillers committed $100 million in 2009 to establish a neuroscience center at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Between 2017 and 2021, the couple sent an additional $48 million to the center.
The foundation’s giving waxes and wanes
The foundation’s spending has been on a see-saw over the past decade-plus. Between 2009 and 2013, it went above typical levels, spending more than 6.3% of its assets annually, according to tax filings. Then for the next five years, between 2014 and 2018, its grants accounted for just 3.9% of its assets. Spending above the mandated 5% minimum in prior years ensured that it continued to meet the required payout rate during the latter stretch. More recent years have also varied, from 7.6% (2020) to 4.8% (2021). There’s a method to the fluctuations, as Druckenmiller told me the foundation gives “opportunistically.”
Grants stay close to home
Stanley was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and once considered buying his beloved Steelers. He later began working in New York City, which the Druckenmillers now call home. Stanley runs his family office from a building half a block from Trump Tower, while Fiona’s gallery is located just off Madison Avenue.
It’s also where the couple do nearly all their grantmaking. In 2020, all but three of the foundation’s 53 grants went to organizations in New York and Pennsylvania, where all their academic scholarships were sent, according to an Instrumentl analysis.