Faithful Patron: How a Private Equity Veteran Thinks About His Campus Giving

photo: SINITAR/shutterstock

photo: SINITAR/shutterstock

The University of Pennsylvania recently received a $1 million gift from Wharton 1983 alumnus and businessman Marc J. Leder to endow a curatorial directorship at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where he serves on the board of overseers. Leder also gave a $2 million gift to UPenn’s Behavior Change for Good Initiative (BCFG), which “unites scientists in the social sciences, medicine, computer science and neuroscience in an extraordinary interdisciplinary effort to change behavior for good.” BCFG collaborators are developing an interactive digital platform to improve daily decisions about health, education and finance with the goal of making change stick in real-world settings.

I recently spoke with Leder about those two big gifts to his alma mater and his philanthropy overall. Leder is co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Sun Capital Partners, Inc., a global private equity firm headquartered in Boca Raton. He’s also an owner of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Like so many stories of alumni giving we write about, Leder’s philanthropic support of his alma mater is spurred on in part by gratitude.

Raised in a Jewish family in New York, Leder attended UPenn and found his college experience to be transformative: “It really shaped a great deal of my personality and my future,” he says. Indeed, Leder met his longtime business partner Rodger Krouse, co-founder and co-CEO of Sun Capital Partners, during freshman year, and the two have known each other for some four decades.

Leder says that he pretty much started giving to his alma mater right after graduation, though quite modestly, but that his first substantial donations began once he started having business success. And wouldn’t you know it? As someone who took out student loans to go to college, Leder first focused on scholarships.

“It’s a real crisis that a lot of people are graduating with a lot of debt in this country,” Leder said. “I was lucky enough to make good money and pay it off and have a lot of success, but a lot of people are burdened by this debt. I want people to go out of school unencumbered and go on to whatever career they want.”

Like many alumni givers who have long relationships with their schools, Leder also describes how positive his first experiences were giving back. Students who received scholarships would send small descriptions of what they were studying, why they chose Penn, and what courses they were taking. In this way, Leder not only felt like his money was having a direct impact, but he also felt connected to his college community, even as he was removed from it.

Leder explains that his work at Penn became more targeted and personal through the years. His recent gifts totaling $3 million fit under this umbrella. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania is a non-collecting institution presenting exhibitions at the forefront of contemporary practice and culture. Leder recently joined the art institution’s board of overseers and counts art as a relatively new passion.

About seven or eight years ago, Leder was going through a period of transition on the heels of a divorce and during a period when his kids weren’t around all the time. His friend, one Nicolas Berggruen, added Leder as a director of the Berggruen Museum in Berlin. Leder was also exposed to various art scenes in New York, Miami and elsewhere. And soon, he hired an art consultant who helped him slowly put together a meaningful collection. These days, Leder says that he “tries to be thoughtful about the artist,” whether it’s an emerging artist he’s helping or a well-established artist who’s creating a collection that he could leave to a museum or his children one day.

Meanwhile, the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at UPenn is helmed by directors Katherine Milkman, who runs BCFG Savings and Health, and Angela Duckworth, director of BCFG Education. Duckworth is also the founder and CEO of another interesting outfit called Character Lab, whose “mission is to advance the science and practice of character development so that all students can reach their full potential.” Character Lab’s donors include the Bezos Family Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Walton Family Foundation, and former “Tiger Cub” Feroz Dewan and his wife Erica, whose philanthropy I will dig into in a later post.

A growing number of funders are keenly interested in research into behavior and how to change and influence it. Leder’s own history with Behavior Change for Good Initiative began when Penn President Amy Gutmann introduced Leder to Duckworth and Milkman’s work. When Leder met the two for lunch, he says he was fascinated, calling them “amazing researchers. Brilliant, articulate, very human and warm. It was clear that this was a great way to give back to the university and to give back to society.”

This story is yet another reminder of the gifts that can flow from connecting donors to the intellectual talent within universities.

Leder adds about the initiative that “most people know what they have to do to have a better, richer life: save for education, eat the proper foods, exercise, study, all the basics that are the foundation to a great life. Everyone knows it, yet so few people really do it.”

It just so happens that this kind of deep dive into what motivates human beings and their behavior is also something that Leder, in some sense, has been exploring as a finance leader for many years, as well. He explains:

Sun Capital has become really passionate about culture. It’s the same idea, but on a collective, corporate basis. Successful corporate organizations have really clear values and culture. I’ve done a lot of work modifying and studying culture. Basically, Angela and Katie were doing that same work, but on the individual, societal level, not the collective corporate realm.

Leder lays out a compelling case for why deep-pocketed business leaders in finance, technology and other sectors might be particularly drawn to this kind of work.

Sun Capital Partners also runs the Sun Capital Partners Foundation, which is jointly funded by Leder and his business partner Rodger Krouse right down the middle. The foundation supports philanthropic efforts in three main ways. First, a charity committee chooses from a list of charities nominated by anyone at the firm’s Boca Raton office. Neither he nor Roger serves on the board. “We evaluate them in the same way we evaluate business investments,” Leder adds. From there, dozens of charities are narrowed to a handful that receive support. Usually, these organizations are South Florida-centric and a big winner through the years is Boca Helping Hands, a social services organization, which has received $650,000 to date. Sun Capital Partners Foundation also engages in double matching donations and supports charities within Sun Capital’s business orbit around the world, as well.

Leder, meanwhile, directs more personal donations through the Marc J. Leder Foundation, including his support to Penn. The foundation has kept a rather low profile, but Leder tells me that plans for an accessible website are in the works. Leder himself is only in his 50s, and now that he appears to be in a new phase of life, should be watched for more robust personal giving in the coming years.