Why Gerry Lenfest Commits Part of His Fortune to Marine Conservation

  • May 11, 2016
  • by Daniel LeDuc

© Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Gerry Lenfest saw a need for sound scientific research to guide policymakers about the marine environment; so with his wife, Marguerite, he created the Lenfest Ocean Program and asked Pew to manage it.

When H.F. Lenfest, who goes by Gerry, graduated from high school in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, his father asked him what he planned to study in college. When he didn’t have an answer, Dad made other plans for his son: Young Gerry went to sea, working aboard a tanker that picked up crude oil in Venezuela and delivered it to Aruba, then loaded refined oil and transported it to Copenhagen.

It was tough and dirty work. By summer’s end, Dad met the tanker New London when it docked in Philadelphia with a question for his son: Ready for college now?

The summer of toil had given the young Lenfest a new focus, a revitalized work ethic, and a passion for the sea—all traits that would play central roles in a life now in its eighth decade.

After graduating from Washington and Lee University, Lenfest served as a naval officer aboard a destroyer that operated in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean, furthering his appreciation for the ocean. And after law school at Columbia University, he joined the white shoe firm Davis Polk & Wardwell on Wall Street. One of the firm’s clients, E. Roland Harriman of the famed railroad and finance family, made an observation to the young lawyer that would have great influence on him later in life as Lenfest made his own fortune. “When you have this much money,” Harriman told Lenfest, “it’s not fun; it’s responsibility.”

From Wall Street, Lenfest moved to Philadelphia to join Triangle Publications, a media company owned by Walter Annenberg. Triangle’s holdings included TV Guide, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Seventeen magazine, television stations, and cable television systems. Lenfest served as counsel to Annenberg and then publisher of Seventeen and was in charge of Triangle’s cable television operations but always had the desire to own his own company—so when Annenberg decided to sell off some of the cable business, Lenfest found two investors and bought in.

That was in 1974, and the cable system had 7,600 subscribers. By 2000, when he sold Lenfest Communications to Comcast Corp., it had 1.3 million customers in one cluster of contiguous cable television systems in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. His $1.2 billion in profits from the sale has allowed Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, to launch a wave of philanthropy—from generous scholarship programs for high school students in rural Pennsylvania communities, to civic and arts institutions in Philadelphia, to new buildings and endowments at his alma maters, to a groundbreaking environmental initiative with Pew called the Lenfest Ocean Program.

Most recently, he gave The Inquirer, which he and several investors purchased in 2014, to the nonprofit Philadelphia Foundation in the hope that the move would ensure that the newspaper remains a stable and independent source of information.

Whatever he and his wife have chosen to support, over the past decade and a half, they have followed three guideposts for their philanthropy.

The first is that they did not want a family foundation, which they feared could over time be a source of conflict among the family members; instead, each of their three children has his or her own foundation and none serve on each other’s boards. Another principle is that the couple’s foundation staff and board are made up of professional advisers—not friends or family members.

And finally, they did not want a foundation that lasted in perpetuity, preferring to focus on needs they see now. The plan is for their assets to be exhausted within 10 years after their deaths. “The philosophy is to give in your lifetime so you can see the impact,” Lenfest says, “and let the future take care of itself.”

Over the years, Pew’s deep roots in Philadelphia offered opportunities for the Lenfests to collaborate with Pew on a number of civic initiatives, such as the effort to save the famed Barnes Foundation, which was struggling financially, and its art collection.

These collaborations led to Lenfest meeting Joshua S. Reichert, Pew’s executive vice president for environmental projects. Lenfest had already endowed a research center on sustainable energy at Columbia. In his conversations with Reichert, he observed that policymakers charged with protecting the marine environment needed sound scientific research to guide their decisions.

So in 2004, he and Marguerite created their namesake ocean program and asked Pew to manage it on their behalf. The Lenfest Ocean Program supports research by leading marine scholars around the globe with a focus on the environmental, economic, and social impact of fishing, fisheries management, and aquaculture. The research is published in peer-reviewed journals, summarized for policymakers and the media, and the scientists frequently present their findings to influential groups.

The program has supported dozens of reports from researchers around the world.

Some of the most recent have shown how ignoring ocean warming has hampered New England cod recovery, how older big fish can counteract the effects of overfishing, and how satellite data may help fishermen avoid endangered species.

“The Lenfest Ocean Program has provided a model for how sound science can guide and improve public policy,” says Reichert. “We’re immensely grateful for our partnership with Gerry and Marguerite, who share a respect for independent, scholarly research.”

For their part, the Lenfests have welcomed the opportunity to serve the sea. Lenfest says “we feel honored to be associated with Pew.” He and Marguerite recently renewed their support for the Lenfest Ocean Program, which has leveraged further investment by Pew, allowing Reichert and program director Charlotte Hudson to develop a new strategy for its future. “They’ve earned my trust,” Lenfest says.

Surrounded by models of his sailboats and classic big ships in his office in suburban Philadelphia, Lenfest is still working six days a week. But these days he allows himself to think a bit about the legacy of his giving. The feeling is simple, he says: “It’s the satisfaction of accomplishing some good things in my lifetime.”

For more information about philanthropic partnerships at Pew, please contact Senior Vice President Sally O’Brien at 202-540-6226 or sobrien@pewtrusts.org.