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Josh Bekenstein Leverages His Time for Philanthropy

Josh Bekenstein is a living example of the philanthropic maxim to “give earlier rather than later.” Josh Bekenstein, who has been at Bain Capital since its inception and a managing director of the firm since 1986, says that the goal for him and his wife, Anita, “is to see if we can give it all away while we’re alive, and die broke.”

But as a working executive still in the midst of a career and raising five children, Bekenstein has developed a focused portfolio of philanthropy that doesn’t include a foundation to manage. Instead, building on his career of selecting the right companies in which to invest, Bekenstein relies on trusted friends and sources to bring great organizations to his attention. He also relies on New Profit, a venture philanthropy firm of which he is a board member, to conduct due diligence on high-potential social entrepreneurs.

The Bekensteins have “divided the world into three areas we thought we might be able to contribute in,” he says: inner-city poverty and education, cancer research, and giving back to the colleges “that had helped us” in terms of scholarships. Among the last is Yale University, Bekenstein’s alma mater, which he serves as a member of the Board of Advisors for the School of Management. And Bekenstein stresses the importance of great leaders and good governance for the success of any nonprofit, but especially young organizations. Great results require great management, he says, which means the often-suspect realm of “overhead” cannot be stinted.

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The reason why we decided to get involved as soon as we could and why we believe in doing philanthropy as soon as one’s able to, is because there are great challenges in the world today. There are a lot of people suffering. There are a lot of needs in the society, in the country, and in the world and for us, it’s much more rewarding to try to solve those today rather than trying to accumulate capital and give it away later.

The way I think about it is -- if you’re a philanthropist and you want to give back, you need to find organizations that can help you accomplish your goal...and if you find a great organization that you believe in, as opposed to viewing that you’ve done them a favor, my perspective is, there’s a mutuality of interest. They’ve done you a favor, because they’re going to help you accomplish a goal and you’ve helped them because you’re helping them accomplish their goal.

I think it’s great for philanthropists to try to put themselves on the other side of the table and think about the needs of organizations and not to get upset over 'overhead.' To us, overhead is management and you can’t get anywhere without great management. So I think those philanthropic folks who want to give 100% of their money just to direct service, I don’t think they’re really advancing the cause. You’re not really going to accomplish a lot with your money if you’re not willing to pay the cost of your overhead.

I always say, that my goal is to see if we can give it all away while we’re alive and die broke...As long as there’re places out there that need support and great organizations trying to do great things for people, our goal is to be as supportive as we can in our lifetimes and we hope that the next generation will do the same, but our goal is to try to give the money away that we can allocate while we’re alive.

There are a lot of other people who believe in local philanthropy and so for example, if all the philanthropists in Boston said, “No, let’s just focus on national” the problem is, no great organizations would be able to make it work in Boston because in Chicago, a lot of people are supporting Chicago philanthropy and in Atlanta and Houston and every big city in this country, people are supporting local philanthropy. And so, no organization can go national without local support.