Billions Left to Give: The Latest Big Move by Home Depot Co-founder Bernie Marcus

Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus is 88 and has a net worth of $4.3 billion. He and his wife Billi are signatories of the Giving Pledge. In fact, they were among the first crop of billionaires to sign the pledge, and at the time, Bernie wrote that "it has always been my belief that leaving enormous wealth for our children does nothing to stimulate their ability to make it on their own."

The other thing Marcus said in his Giving Pledge letter is that he hoped to disperse most of his wealth during his lifetime—while using his business acumen to ensure that the Marcus Foundation gives wisely. "Our staff insists on outcomes for every grant we make," he wrote. "If outcomes are not achieved, we don’t hesitate to withdraw funding. Our money has a value and it took lots of hard work to accumulate. I don’t just write checks—we try to make the organizations we fund better." 

With billions left to give, it's not surprising that Bernie Marcus has ramped things up in the past few years. The Marcus Foundation gave out nearly $89 million grants in 2015, up from $68 million in 2014. 

Despite its enormous giving, this foundation keeps a very low profile. It doesn't even have a website. As we've written before, the Marcus Foundation also embodies the "lean philanthropy" ethos preferred by many living donors. Its operating and administrative expenses, not counting interest payments, were under 7 percent in a recent year.

In part, the Marcus Foundation stays lean by giving out money in large chunks. Nearly 20 of its 2014 grants were over $1 million, with the biggest clocking in at over $7 million. In other years, the top grants have been even bigger.

RelatedStaying Small, Giving Large: The Latest Big Bet by a Top Lean Foundation

Still, learning anything about the Marcus Foundation and how it operates is not easy. We’ve done a bit of that research here at IP, and what we do know is that Bernie Marcus has given away more than $1 billion through his foundation.

Marcus decided early on that what he describes as a “buckshot approach to giving,” wouldn’t maximize the impact of that giving. So he decided that the foundation would narrow its grantmaking to just five main areas of focus. One of the biggest is medical research. And the Marcus Foundation just made a groundbreaking gift in that regard.

It gave the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus a five-year, $38 million grant to improve its programs geared toward military vets and their families and establish the Marcus Institute for Brain Health (MIBH) at CU Anschutz.

The institute, which is slated to open this summer, provides care for people with mild to moderate brain injuries and offers specialty services for military veterans suffering from such conditions as traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. In fact, the design of the MIBH follows that of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. NICoE has reportedly treated over 1,300 active-duty military personnel suffering from traumatic brain injuries and psychological conditions.

When it comes to treating vets, the major difference between NICoE and the Marcus Institute for Brain Health is that the institute’s services are available to all military vets regardless of their discharge status or ability to pay.

There's nothing all that surprising about this mega-grant, since Marcus and his foundation have a fairly quiet history of making big gifts to medical institutions, especially those located in Atlanta, Georgia.

    In 2012, the foundation awarded a $20 million grant to what is now known as the Marcus Heart Valve Center, which is part of the Atlanta-based Piedmont Healthcare group. In 2016, Marcus—through his foundation—gave Piedmont a $75 million gift for continuing support of the Piedmont Heart Institute.

    The Marcus Foundation’s gifts to support the treatment of neurological disorders is just as impressive. In 2015, the foundation awarded two researchers at Duke University a $15 million grant to fund a study of the use of umbilical cord blood cells to treat brain disorders such as autism and cerebral palsy. Marcus’ interest in funding brain studies goes back further than that, though.

    In 2005, the foundation gave $25 million to launch Autism Speaks, and in 2012, it gave Boca Raton Regional Hospital a $25 million grant to create the Marcus Neuroscience Institute. Of the gift, Bernie Marcus said, “We have long tried to help those involved in caring for individuals with neurological disease or impairment on both a pediatric and adult basis.”

    With its latest give, the Marcus Foundation is still doing its best to help. And make no mistake: More help will keep coming from Bernie Marcus in the years ahead.