“A Lovely Idea.” How a New York Media Family Gives

Columbia university is among the beneficiaries of mcmanus giving. LENS-68/shutterstock

Columbia university is among the beneficiaries of mcmanus giving. LENS-68/shutterstock

Jason D. McManus began full-time at Time magazine as a writer in the World section in the late 1950s. The Rhodes Scholar oversaw coverage of the Watergate scandal during the early 1970s, and eventually rose to become Time magazine’s editor-in-chief. He retired in 1994. McManus’ wife Deborah also worked for Time before returning to school to study architecture and urban planning, and starting her own business. Today, she’s a musician and is active in civic life, including as founder of SoHarmoniums, a Manhattan all-women’s choir in the SoHo neighborhood.

It’s unclear how much the McManuses are worth, but they are philanthropic, establishing the D J McManus Foundation in 1999. The foundation’s board also includes the couple’s two adult daughters. I recently spoke with Deborah McManus, the foundation’s president, about the story behind their family foundation and what they support through their low-profile charity.

The McManus Foundation is nearly two decades old, and Deborah explains the motivations for its founding: “We had some extra money, and it seemed like a lovely idea to establish such a thing and be able to give away some money every year.” She says the foundation’s assets have almost doubled since it was established, and “we plan to keep growing.” Tax records for a recent year show the couple made a gift to the foundation of $1.5 million, which paid out nearly $650,000 in grants and reported assets of around $15 million.

Like many family foundations, the D J McManus Foundation’s grantmaking largely tracks with causes of personal interest to the family. Deborah’s own interests center on music and the arts. One of the couple’s daughters is keen on animal rights and the other, Sophie, a writer who’s taught creative writing, tends to look for literary causes that might benefit from a grant. Deborah is quick to tell me, though, that the foundation has no formal focus areas. “We’re really all over the place. When we’re a little older, I believe we’ll begin to focus a little more specifically on disciplines, but as it is now, there are just so many things that come in front of our eyes that could benefit from the grant. We tend to react right now instead of initiate, but we think that will change.”

The foundation gives upward of 140 grants per year, the smallest being $500 up to $50,000, with a few outliers. The foundation’s flagship program is Eleanor’s Outings, named after Deborah’s late mother. The program provides excursions to the theatre for seniors at about 10 settlement houses across the five New York boroughs.

Deborah calls this effort “one of her favorites, because it is really a wonderful way to bring light and color into the lives of senior citizens. Obviously, the elderly have to think about food and security and housing before something light and airy like the theater. For that reason, it’s extra-special, because senior citizens don’t usually have a chance to do something just for fun.” Deborah recalls receiving a letter from one New York City woman who had never stepped foot inside an opera house before finally getting the opportunity through Eleanor’s Outings.

In 2006, Deborah herself started SoHarmoniums, originally a choir of six, which has swelled all the way to more than 60 women. They’ve sung twice at Carnegie Hall, once at Alice Tully Hall, and they give two concerts a year at Merkin Hall. The foundation’s grantmaking has supported this women’s choir.

Another grantee through the years has been Vassar College, where Sophie graduated. Back down the Hudson River in Manhattan, meanwhile, the family focus on Columbia University, creating an endowment for a program called BOF Scholars, which supports one or two non-American and Canadian women annually to attend Columbia’s journalism school for a year. This year’s BOF Scholar hails from India.

“There will probably always be room in the portfolio for programs that help break down silly barriers,” Deborah responded when I asked her about her interest in women’s causes. Deborah herself worked as a researcher for Time in an era when it was rare for women to write for major magazines.

The same year that Jason and Deborah McManus established their family foundation, Deborah also co-founded the WellMet Group, now known as WellMet Philanthropy. A group of about 30 women put down $5,000 per year for 501(c)3 startups in the five boroughs of New York in partnership with the New York Community Trust. WellMet has supported places like Prison Writes, which provides therapeutic writing workshops for detained and incarcerated youth. Through the years, WellMet has given away almost $3 million.

The D J McManus Foundation tends to seek out new partner organizations. “I do look at solicitations, but we pretty much run our own shop.” As the foundation deepens its interests in the coming years, though, fundraisers should watch this New York-area media family.