Why This Donor Gave $7 Million for Understanding Migration

We've said it before and we'll say it again: The lack of a widespread response from U.S. funders to the Syrian refugee crisis has been unfortunate. There are some folks getting involved, luckily, such as entertainment couple Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher, who recently gave $1 million to Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee to help victims, many of them children. With most major U.S. foundations MIA on the refugee crisis, individual donors have become even more important. 

Related: At Least Someone's Paying Attention: A Funny Couple Steps Up For Syria With $1 Million

While we'll hopefully see more funders sending aid to those in the region, another way philanthropic dollars can make a difference in Syria and in other humanitarian crises is through policy and research. Consider the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School, named after the late Ary Zolberg, a well-known professor of politics who was interested in issues like immigration politics, ethnicity, and immigration. The Zolberg Institute is interested in rethinking the ways we describe the movement of people in service of social justice and equality.

One way all of this might apply in Syria and elsewhere is helping people see refugees as a desperate population rather than, say, a group of criminals or terrorists. If you saw families fleeing from a burning apartment building, would you want them greeted by police with guns and clubs? Or a ten-foot high fence? As Alexandra Delano, assistant professor of global studies at New School's Eugene Lang College, notes, certain language and rhetoric “undercuts the rights of people that decide or are forced to move from their place of origin.”

Against this background comes news of a recent $7 million gift to the Zolberg Institute by New School trustee Henry Arnhold. I've written about Arnhold and his philanthropy before. Arnhold's own early life involved fraught circumstances that forced him to flee. Born in Dresden, Arnhold hails from the Dresden banking family of Arnhold. His family's bank fell victim to "Aryanization" and when World War II broke out, Arnhold was arrested. Fleeing first to Sweden and then Cuba, Arnhold reached the United States in 1942. Arnhold studied at UCLA, served a stint in the U.S. Army, and joined his family's investment bank Arnhold & S. Bleichroeder, where he served as chairman starting in 1960.

It's easy to see how this personal story might animate some of Arnhold's philanthropy. Indeed, via his Arnhold Foundation, he's recently supported organizations like the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, World Policy Institute, Council on Foreign Relations, and Global Citizen Year, a leadership development outfit which provides experiences abroad for students doing a bridge year. Arnhold also established the Mulago Foundation in its current form to honor his late brother, a San Francisco doctor who spent time working abroad in impoverished regions. Mulago is laser-focused on funding innovative projects to solve global issues and also runs a fellows program.

Arnhold seems like just the kind of donor who would be interested in supporting a place like the Zolberg Institute at the New School. Arnhold has supported the New School before, too, giving $900,000 via his foundation in the 2013 fiscal year alone. Arnhold's $7 million gift, meanwhile, will be used to transform the Zolberg Institute into a "global center for academic research, policy debate, and discussions of global migration and mobility, their economic impact, and their political consequences." Additionally, the gift will completely fund a professorship focused on educating the next generation of leaders in migration research.