The Mixed Philanthropic Legacy of Julian Robertson, a Standout Wall Street Giver

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What happens when a Giving Pledger passes away? It isn’t a question we’ve confronted too often in the decade-plus history of the pledge, but it will be as the years go by and the time comes to evaluate the lives and legacies of these self-appointed paragons of contemporary philanthropy.

Julian H. Robertson, Jr., who died last week at 90, was one of the founding signatories of the Giving Pledge. A celebrated investor once known as the “wizard of Wall Street,” Robertson pioneered the hedge fund model, setting up Tiger Management in 1980 and going on to build a multibillion-dollar fortune. Robertson was also a longstanding philanthropist who established several nonprofit funding vehicles and moved significant sums out the door to a variety of causes.

A statement by Robertson’s publicist upon his death put the sum total of his philanthropic giving at $2 billion. That’s an impressive figure by any reckoning, and one worthy of a mega-donor who helped set the tone for the next generation of big Wall Street givers. Nevertheless, by the numbers, Robertson’s Giving Pledge didn’t pan out during his lifetime. He was worth an estimated $4.8 billion around the time of his death.

For that reason and several others — including his longtime support for the flagging charter school model and a record of GOP donations that undermined his climate giving — Robertson’s is a mixed philanthropic legacy. At the same time, that legacy will continue to evolve as his Robertson Foundation enters a new chapter and the remainder of his wealth enters new hands.

An enthusiastic donor

In his 2010 Giving Pledge letter, Robertson wrote, “One very fortunate thing is that I did not get nearly as enthusiastic about philanthropy early on as I am now; if I had, there would be very little to give away.”

Robertson didn’t, however, wait too long to delve into big-time giving. Through the 1990s, while Tiger Management was still outperforming the market by significant margins, Robertson poured money into several separate charities. The oldest, the Tiger Foundation, got started in 1989 and maintains a tight focus on poverty in New York City, as well as a close association with former colleagues of Robertson at Tiger Management.

The largest, the Robertson Foundation, dates back to 1996 and accounts for the biggest chunk of the late billionaire’s giving, often moving over $100 million out the door on an annual basis. Another smaller grantmaker, the Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation, got its start in 1997 and is named after Robertson’s parents. He used it to fund work in his hometown of Salisbury, North Carolina. And yet another, the New York-based Aotearoa Foundation, was set up in 2004 and gives primarily in New Zealand, where Robertson owned resort properties and wineries.

Robertson had diverse philanthropic interests. Health and medical research were major themes, and Robertson was known to disburse large sums to places like the New York Stem Cell Research Foundation, both through the Robertson Foundation and directly from his own pockets. Environmental giving was another longstanding interest, with an ongoing focus on conservation and increasing attention to climate change. The Environmental Defense Fund has been one of the Robertson Foundation’s top grantees, with additional grants going out to mostly well-established concerns like the National Parks Conservation Association, the World Resources Institute and the Southern Environmental Law Center, to name a few.

Charter schools were a longtime staple of Robertson’s education philanthropy. He backed them with grants from both the Robertson and Tiger foundations, gaining a perch among the well-populated ranks of mega-rich donors who threw their weight behind the model. But Robertson’s philanthropic interests weren’t limited to those areas — he also gave for religious causes, funded scholarships, and leaned into a bunch of other issues that caught his eye. In his Giving Pledge letter, he enthused about anti-obesity efforts, one of many additional causes he funded over the years.

A mixed philanthropic record

Julian Robertson was certainly no philanthropic skinflint — a charge that can be leveled at many of his peers in the hedge fund universe, as well as billionaires more broadly. He also had enough professional humility to quit while he was ahead. In 2000, just two years after Tiger Management’s asset peak, Robertson shuttered his Tiger Fund amid the dot-com bubble, claiming he no longer understood the market. He did, however, continue seeding new hedge funds and lived to see a long list of his former Tiger employees and proteges build their own funds.

During the two decades that followed the Tiger Fund’s closure, philanthropic giving was another prime pursuit of Robertson’s sunset years. However, although his giving during that time was substantial and wide-ranging, there’s a case to be made that its impact leaves quite a bit to be desired.

For instance, take Robertson’s expansive charter school support, which represented a significant part of his education giving. On one hand, major donors like Robertson helped scale the charter movement into the local and national behemoth it eventually became. But as we’ve discussed before, the charter model itself has failed to truly scale the way its architects hoped it would, and now finds itself beleaguered amid a wide range of political, ethical and operational challenges. Most of the donors who’ve gone in big for charters, Robertson included, could certainly point to some successes here and there, but the model’s overall record remains mixed. Increasingly, we’re seeing even charters’ biggest philanthropic backers tempering their enthusiasm.

Part of the problem with Robertson’s environment and climate giving lies with his politics. While his support for Republican politicians didn’t rise to the level of fellow hedge funder Ken Griffin, Robertson was a longtime supporter of GOP figures who made it their business to stymie federal action on climate change during critical decades, now yielding devastating consequences. And his GOP political donations continued well into the Trump era. While Robertson didn’t vocally support Donald Trump (except when he did), he sustained his support for the Trump-dominated GOP — including with $2 million as recently as late 2021 for the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC.

We said something similar about Ken Griffin’s arts support, and it applies here, as well. When you’re giving to climate nonprofits with one hand and backing anti-climate politicians with the other, the net impact of all that money is dubious at best, self-defeating at worst.

Finally, as we noted back in 2014, Robertson’s giving operation has never been known for its transparency and ease of access. In that, he was little different from the many mega-donors who continue to obscure their giving processes and project an air of mystery and inscrutability. Perhaps some of them took their cues, in part, from him.

The Giving Pledge allows for signatories to fulfill their pledges to give away the majority of their wealth in their wills in addition to while they were living. We have yet to see exactly how Robertson’s fortune will be apportioned after his death. But the fact remains that despite his substantial giving and clear enthusiasm for philanthropy, Robertson failed to fulfill the pledge while he was alive. It’s yet another indicator that when they follow standard philanthropic practice, as Robertson mostly did, even the more generous cadre of billionaires is falling short.

We’ll have to see what the posthumous era of Robertson giving holds. The investor’s three sons may play a part — Alexander heads Tiger Management’s current incarnation as a hedge fund seeding business; Julian III, who goes by Jay, manages Robertson’s New Zealand properties; and Spencer, a Tiger Foundation alum, went on to work in the charter school field. The Robertson Foundation, for its part, will stick around and may continue giving at or above a rate of $100 million a year — though its future direction is still under review. Look out for our upcoming deeper dive into the current status and potential future of the Robertson Foundation. Also keep an eye out for an overview of how Robertson’s hedge funder proteges, the former Tiger Management personnel known as “Tiger cubs,” are deploying their philanthropic giving.

As a major player in the interconnected worlds of finance and philanthropy, Julian Robertson helped set the tone for how successful Wall Streeters and other uber-rich folks give today. He deserves credit for actually moving a substantial portion of his fortune out the door while alive, something most people with his level of wealth fail to do. Nevertheless, Robertson’s mixed philanthropic record reflects the tension between the founding-era Giving Pledgers’ enthusiasm for charity and the reality that it takes more than a talent for stock picking or building killer apps to give effectively and at scale.