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On the receiving end for a change, the Lenfests win the Carnegie Medal

The Lenfests join past medalists like the Rockefeller and Gates families.

H.F. “Gerry” and Marguerite Lenfest
H.F. “Gerry” and Marguerite LenfestRead moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Marguerite Lenfest recalls sitting with Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and a few other heavy hitters years ago at a New York dinner convened to brainstorm how to persuade wealthy people to give more to charitable causes.

When the attention turned to her, she responded with her characteristic crisp, no-nonsense logic.

"You figure out what you need for your lifestyle. What don't you need? And what do you do with" the money you don't need? "You might as well do some good and enjoy the benefits that you're giving, instead of leaving it for others to decide what to do. Be in charge."

"Warren Buffett said, 'You know, that is the best idea we've heard,' " recalled her husband, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest.

The Lenfests have put deed to word. Perhaps more than any other living Philadelphia philanthropic couple, they've done good and had a good time doing it. A dozen and a half years ago, they said they would give it all away, and they nearly have. Since 2000, they've distributed more than $1.2 billion to arts and culture, education, social services, and other charitable causes.

Most recently, in a surprising, late-in-life coda, Gerry Lenfest acquired, donated, and endowed the media company that publishes the Inquirer, Daily News, and "That was the last gasp. That depleted my wealth," he said recently.

Now, the couple, accustomed to being on the giving end of beneficence, is getting something. The Lenfests are among nine winners of the prestigious 2017 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, given by a group of Andrew Carnegie-affiliated organizations and announced by them Thursday in New York City.

The national honor, awarded every two years to philanthropists who have had significant impact, puts the Lenfests in a national context – it was awarded in previous years to Brooke Astor, the Rockefeller and Gates families, and Michael Bloomberg – and it also cements their place in their hometown as two of its most generous donors ever. Previous Philadelphians to win the Carnegie Medal are the Annenberg, Pew, and Haas families.

"It really came out of the blue," said Gerry Lenfest of the medal, to be presented in New York in October.

The award follows the dictum of Carnegie, who once said that the person who dies rich dies disgraced, said Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corp. of New York. Gregorian spoke of the Lenfests' exhaustive generosity and also their modesty, integrity, and consistency in giving over the years.

"They typify the best of Philadelphia," he said.

Gregorian noted that while many philanthropists give to erect buildings, the Lenfests — whose billions in personal wealth came from the sale of their cable business in 2000 — give to buildings but also invest heavily in people.

Asked why, Gerry Lenfest, 87, cited a program he started at Columbia University, an alma mater, where he was also a trustee. "Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were raiding Columbia faculty, because their endowment was much larger than Columbia's," he said. So to help retain talent, the Lenfests funded a distinguished professor award at the school, given to a number of teachers each year, that comes with a $25,000 cash award for three years, "where we would recognize teachers for how well they taught, not how many books they wrote."

Often, they have underwritten endowed chairs by offering challenge gifts: The Lenfests put up half the money, but allow the donor of the other half to have naming rights to the chair.

"We try to be creative – not just give outright gifts," he says.

The Lenfests never liked the idea of foundations that exist in perpetuity. And recently, the Lenfest Foundation approved a plan to spend down its endowment – that is, give away all of its money, and then cease to exist. But one of the Lenfests' most significant pet projects, the Lenfest Scholars Foundation, will live on. In fact, the program, which provides college scholarships and college advising to high-achieving students from rural Pennsylvania – again, investing in people – recently received a $20 million gift from a donor whose name has not been made public. It nearly doubles the group's endowment and allows the program to expand.

The other winners of this year's Carnegie Medal are: Mei Hing Chak (Meiqing Zhai) of the HeungKong Charitable Foundation; Azim Premji Azim, Premji Foundation; Julian Robertson, Robertson Foundation; Jeffrey Skoll, Skoll Foundation; Kristine Tompkins, Tompkins Conservation; Shelby White, Leon Levy Foundation; and James Wolfensohn, Wolfensohn Center for Development.

Asked about their proudest accomplishments as philanthropists, Gerry Lenfest named the Curtis Institute of Music.

"I put that at the top of the list," he said. "We fell in love with that place – the students and the history. They were a little shaky when we went in, financially, but now they have a new building and the endowment's gone up. I feel good about that one. We put a new chapter in their life."

And the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "I loved the time at PMA with Anne" d'Harnoncourt, the museum director who died while he was chairman of the board.

Some decisions they made together, others alone. "He makes the big gifts, I make the little ones," says Marguerite, 83, though that's not entirely true.

They decided together to get involved at Williamson College of the Trades in Media in 2008. "They were in financial difficulty, and the president came by and said that [Henry] Rowan has given a $5 million challenge gift. Will you help us raise the $5 million?" said Gerry Lenfest. "I said, go back to Mr. Rowan and see if he'll raise it to $20 million and I'll match it."

The challenge worked, and the school, geared toward low-income students, did not have to do what it had feared it might – cut programs and enrollment. Today, it is raising more money, but this time for growth.

The Lenfests have funded overnight camps, given a home to Pennsylvania impressionist paintings at the Michener Art Museum, helped to save the rowing program at Temple University, became major players in moving the Barnes Foundation's gallery to Center City, and led the campaign to build the Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in April.

On the question of who might succeed them as Philadelphia's first couple of philanthropy, Gerry Lenfest had little to say. "I wish I could tell you. How many will follow the lead of giving all of their fortune away?"

Marguerite chimed in: "I would think more people within their ability would like to control money that they don't really need to live on. As opposed to dying with it and then someone else decides what to do with it, or the government takes it. Besides, controlling it, you get pleasure out of seeing what it's doing. Once people do that, they feel better I think about continuing to do that."

And what about regrets? It's clear that Marguerite wasn't in love with the idea of owning and investing in a media company. For a stretch of an interview this week, the conversational right-of-way yielded to a spontaneous exchange between the two, married for more than six decades, on principles of philanthropy and other matters of the heart.

He: "I make up my mind quickly, sometimes too quickly – right?" he asked his wife.

She, after a long pause and stare: "We still have on the door at home on the refrigerator [something] that has been there for 50 years: Remember the words no and why. There is a word no. You don't have to do everything. And if you do something, are you doing it to be nice, or are you doing it because you want to do it, or have to do it? Why are you doing it?"

He: "Looking back, are you sorry we did what we did?"

She, after another long pause, and then a chuckle: "Some things were a bit much."

He: "It's been fun."

She: "You do have fun seeing what it's doing. Isn't that what I told Warren Buffett?"

Few could argue. In its autumnal phase, the Lenfest era of philanthropy has been fun, and it's an understatement to say: It has done a lot.