Which is why they are often funded very well (though sometimes not) even by atheists, as this story from the Philanthropy Roundtable magazine notes.
“Robert W. Wilson speaks with a calm, almost gentle, voice. With his wire rim glasses and closely cropped gray beard, Wilson could easily be mistaken for a senior professor at a small liberal arts college. But Wilson is not an academic. He is a legendarily successful Wall Street investor. Retired since 1986, the 83-year-old Wilson now devotes much of his time to philanthropy.
“Among his many achievements, Wilson is the single largest benefactor of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York. Since 2007, he has donated over $30 million to inner-city Catholic education.
“He is also an atheist.
“I remember the first time I had lunch with Cardinal Egan,” says Wilson, a touch impishly. “We were finishing up, and he said, ‘Well, now that you’ve given all this money to our schools, I should try to convert you.’ I said to him, ‘Well, Cardinal, if you do, I suppose I should try to convert you. The only problem is that if I succeed, you’ll lose your job.’”
“Wilson belongs to an elite order: non-Catholic donors who are the patron saints of inner-city Catholic schools.
“It Was Just a Form Letter”
“I never gave money to educational institutions until 2007,” says Wilson. “Most of the rich people I know were already giving a lot of money to education—charter schools, private schools, colleges, universities. I decided that there were plenty of people in this field. I chose to direct my resources elsewhere.”
“Wilson plans to give away 70 percent of his net worth before he dies. “My primary interest has been conservation,” Wilson told Portfolio.com in December 2007. He is drawn to “the idea that but for my money, this building or piece of land or that animal would be gone.” Wilson describes himself as a “substantial donor” to the World Monuments Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Over the last 10 years, his contributions to charity have totaled about $500 million; to reach his goal, he believes he will need to give away another $100 million or so.
“Wilson’s philanthropy is born of a fortune he earned in a long and storied career on Wall Street. He started investing in 1949 with a $15,000 loan from his parents. Middling returns marred his first years. Around 1963, he began investing in jet aircraft technology and commercial carriers. From there, he enjoyed a series of spectacular successes. By the time he retired at age 59, he was worth $225 million.
“Wilson was a masterful hedger whose career has been compared to those of George Soros and Warren Buffett. “Wilson’s investment strategy was to go both long and short,” notes financial author Brett Fromson. “Long because he believed in the long-term future of America, and short because he never wanted to be wiped out in a downturn.” “I was always net long,” adds Wilson, “because I never wanted to get up in the morning hoping that things would be getting worse.”
“Catholic schools were brought to Wilson’s attention by what must be history’s most outrageously successful direct-mail fundraising letter. “I got this letter from Susan George, the executive director of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund,” Wilson explains. “It was just a form letter from a mass mailing. It pointed out how little Catholic schools cost per student—and how superior their results are.”