NET WORTH: $5.5 billion
SOURCE OF WEALTH: Caxton Associates, Commodities Trading
FUNDING AREAS: Arts & Culture, Education, Advocacy
OVERVIEW: Kovner has been a major philanthropist since forming the Kovner Foundation in 1986, and up until recently has been relatively private about his foundation's giving. His most significant giving has been in arts and culture, though he is also a strong advocate for choice in schools. His grants tend to be larger in size; even the smaller ones are often over $100,000, but his foundation does not accept applications.
BACKGROUND: Kovner was born to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to Brooklyn in the early 1900’s, and grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where his father moved when he was young. He attended Harvard, and studied at the Kennedy School of Government, though did not finish his Ph.D., and worked as a writer and cab driver. He dabbled in investing on the side before becoming a trader at the Commodities Corporation, where he was very successful, eventually founding his own firm, Caxton Associates, which he chaired until his retirement in 2011.
ARTS & CULTURE: Kovner is on the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and has donated at least $43 million to the organization since 2006. He’s also donated an estimated $70 million to the Juilliard School, where he once studied piano and is now the chairman, endowing the school’s graduate program in historical performance, among other things. Other recipients include the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Morgan Library & Museum, and Carnegie Hall in New York, the New World Symphony in Florida, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in England.
EDUCATION: In addition to supporting arts schools in New York, Kovner is a founder of the School Choice Scholarship Foundation, which awards scholarships to financially disadvantaged elementary school kids in New York City, offering 1,300 scholarships of up to $1,400. He has also made substantial gifts to Harvard, Brown University, the Dalton School, the Bronx Preparatory Charter School, and the Brighter Choice Foundation, which runs several charter schools in Albany, supports several organizations that work on education reform, and once co-signed an op-ed piece on school choice for the New York Times. Kovner recently gave $1 million to Uncommon Schools, another charter network in New York. Perhaps more interestingly however, Kovner has given significant to support to the Middle East Media Research Institute, which seeks to bridge the gap between the West and the Middle East and South Asia by providing timely translations and analysis of Arabic, Farsi, Urdu-Pashtu and Turkish media
ADVOCACY: New York Magazine has called Kovner George Soros’ Right Wing Twin, though he does not appear quite as invested in conservative causes as Soros is in progressive ones. Kovner is the former chair of the board of trustees of the American Enterprise Institute, where he has donated at least $12 million through his foundation. He is also a major backer of the Manhattan Institute, donated half a million to Mitt Romney’s SuperPAC, more than a million and a half to the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, another half a million to the Thomas Fordham Institute, which also advocates for education reform, and over a million to the Institute for Justice, which bills itself as the nation’s only libertarian, civil liberties, public interest law firm. The one organization that he supports in this area that seems to be relatively non-partisan is Centurion Ministries, which is a private investigative agency that advocates on behalf of those who are innocent of crimes for which they were sentenced to life in prison, or the death penalty.
HEALTH: The only major health organization that Kovner has funded appears to be Parents of Autistic Children, which offers educational resources, training, support services, and recreational activities for those affected by and work with autistic children, and received regular donations of $100,000 between 2003 and 2010.
LOOKING FORWARD: Kovner’s private nature has made it a bit difficult to predict where his money may go, but his recent retirement means more time for him to think about the legacy he wants to leave. In addition to being a major proponent of education reform and charter schools, as well as classical music and opera, he’s also an avid collector of rare books and classical music manuscripts, so museums and other places that may house such collections would be one place to look. Jewish organizations are another possibility, as are agnostic and atheist organizations, and organizations that support social entrepreneurship and free market solutions to issues such as poverty and economic development. His foundation has also just begun their involvement with the Everglades Foundation, so perhaps environmental work is of interest to Kovner. His foundation's new website, the link to which can be found below, should better illuminate some of his giving in the future.