New York City’s 20 Most Significant Young Philanthropists

The Observer's second annual list of the most innovative, interesting and influential young do-gooders in our fair city

  • New York society runs on philanthropy—think of the deadly quiet (and abundant cabs) in Manhattan on a typical weeknight without all the galas, benefits, balls, auctions and awards dinners. For that one reason, it’s easy to impute less-than-pious motives to the fancies circuiting from Cipriani to Alice Tully to the Waldorf and back again. The list below should be an antidote to such cynicism, consisting as it does of individuals who have devoted more than just a name or a couple of hours to helping people in need. This is a group that not only operates within the gilded philanthropy sphere but fulfills its true ambition.

  • ADAM BRAUN | Pencils of Promise

    Adam Braun began his career at Bain & Company, where, in his words, he “learned how to build.” In 2008, he combined his Bain skills and a background in finance to found Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit with school-building operations in Laos, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Ghana. One of the organization’s distinctive aspects is that it seeks communities where a portion of funding can come from the community itself—for example, by collecting raw materials. According to Mr. Braun, that deepens community investment and increases the project’s ability to self-sustain.

  • PRINCE LORENZO BORGHESE | Animal Aid

    “We’re just a bunch of animal lovers,” said Lorenzo Borghese, the founder and president of Animal Aid, a nonprofit composed entirely of volunteers sharing one mission: to help animals. Each month, the Animal Aid team drives more than 1,600 miles relocating animals from high-kill shelters to loving rescue homes. A fixture in New York society, Mr. Borghese is also deeply involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and in 2013 granted one young lady’s request “to dance with a prince.”

  • NEIL BLUMENTHAL AND DAVE GILBOA | Warby Parker

    “It’s important to not just give away glasses for free,” Neil Blumenthal told the Observer earlier this month. “Glasses can be used to foster economic development and create jobs.” Mr. Blumenthal, who founded Warby Parker with Dave Gilboa and two other classmates from Wharton, has made philanthropy part of the business since day one. In a partnership with VisionSpring, Warby Parker distributes funds for glasses to an NGO, which then provides business training to entrepreneurs in India, Bangladesh and El Salvador. “Our goal is to create a long-term solution rather than just parachute in with a quick fix.”

  • LAUREN BUSH AND CLAIRE COURTIN-CLARINS | Faces of Change for FEED

    Since 2011, French cosmetics brand Clarins has partnered with FEED, the anti-hunger charity founded and run by model and designer Lauren Bush Lauren. Last year, in an exhibition titled “Faces of Change,” 26-year-old Clarins heir and artist Claire Courtin-Clarins auctioned a series of portraits she had made of philanthropists, all depicted without facial features, enabling the U.N. World Food Program to provide more than 3 million meals. “No faces,” Ms. Courtin-Clarins said of the auction, “because I wanted to give the idea to people that this could be you.”

  • ROSARIO DAWSON | Housing Works

    Rosario Dawson understood the threat of HIV/AIDS at age 6. A native New Yorker who was raised to be honest about difficult subjects, Ms. Dawson grew up watching her mother volunteer at crisis centers and Housing Works, an organization devoted to providing housing for homeless families and people with HIV/AIDS. “My mom inspired me to think and work for other people,” Ms. Dawson said. As the honorary chair of Housing Works’ Design on a Dime initiative, the A-list actress has helped raise more than $7 million in support of more than 20,000 homeless and low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS.

  • MIKE DENTON | Camp Interactive

    “Ultimately, I want to put myself out of a job,” said Camp Interactive founder Mike Denton. “I want communities to know the opportunity gap exists, and I want students to know the demand for jobs in technology exists and that it’s easy to acquire these skills.” Headquartered in the Bronx, Camp Interactive introduces inner-city youth to the creative power of technology through year-round educational programs in New York, Boston, Chicago, Austin and San Francisco.

  • JULIA FEHRENBACH | Buildings Blocks for Change

    “Life and living are two separate things,” said Julia Fehrenbach, the co-founder of Building Blocks for Change, an organization that helps build schools, housing and other infrastructure in the world’s most dangerous slums. Working closely with model Jessica Stam, Ms. Fehrenbach oversees fund-raising, community building and strategic partnerships. Last year, at its launch party, the group raised more than $45,000, allowing construction to begin on a solar generator for a boarding school in Kenya.

  • JENNIFER FISHER | Fashion Targets Breast Cancer

    “Jewelry is armor,” said designer Jennifer Fisher. “And women purchase it for many reasons,” among which are “to feel empowered and to wear in memoriam.” Ms. Fisher lost a grandmother to breast cancer, and she herself beat a rare tumor, spurring her involvement with Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, a charitable initiative of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which has raised nearly $50 million for breast cancer charities over the past 15 years. “Everybody’s human,” Ms. Fisher adds. “So we should all do whatever we can, however small.”

  • ALEX FORRESTER | Rising Tide Capital

    "We live in a world that celebrates size,” Alex Forrester said. “But we believe in the humblest of initiatives.” Passionate about social justice, entrepreneurship and micro-finance, Mr. Forrester co-founded Rising Tide Capital in 2004 to provide economic empowerment to low-income communities through entrepreneurship, using strategic philanthropy to address systemic social issues such as poverty, ex-offender recidivism and modern-day slavery.

  • DHANI HARRISON | Material World Charitable Foundation

    In 1973, Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison started the Material World Charitable Foundation to aid refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War. These days, the foundation is led by Mr. Harrison’s son, Dhani, and promotes awareness of varied causes, from Syrian refugee children to spinal cord injury (in partnership with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation). “At the risk of sounding like a Madonna song,” said Mr. Harrison, “the world in which we live is a material one, and we need material things.”

  • SCOTT HARRISON | Charity Water

    In 2004, Scott Harrison had a “crisis of conscience,” leaving a career in nightlife to volunteer in West Africa. For two years, he watched unsafe water and poor sanitation make people ill. Returning to New York in 2006, he founded charity:water, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing safe drinking water to people in developing nations. Since then, charity:water has funded 11,000+ water projects in 22 countries, providing 4 million people with clean water.

  • CHRIS HUGHES | Give Directly

    Like his Facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes seems determined to impact philanthropy with the same force that Facebook remade the world. Only whereas Mr. Zuckerberg’s contributions so far consist of generous gifts (his $990 million donation to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation was the single-largest charitable gift of 2013), Mr. Hughes is out to revolutionize the field of international aid through his data-oriented, bureaucracy-averse start-up, GiveDirectly.

  • MICHELLE JAVIAN | Harboring Hearts

    In 2009, after her father passed away from a heart ailment, Michelle Javian co-founded Harboring Hearts, an organization dedicated to providing financial and emotional support to heart patients and their families seeking medical care away from home. “During the years my father was at the hospital, I noticed the situations of other heart patients and families there,” Ms. Javian said. “Most had traveled from outside New York City. I saw people sleeping on couches and living in the corners of waiting rooms. The need that existed for refuge and community became strikingly apparent; something had to be done.”

  • JOHN KLUGE, JR. | Toilet Hackers

    When John Kluge, Jr., was 8 years old, he made his first “cause list,” which included eradicating poverty, guaranteeing universal education and lowering taxes. In 2012, Mr. Kluge took on an even more daunting task, co-founding the nonprofit Toilet Hackers, whose mission is to bring “dignified sanitation” to all using waterless technology, mobile phone monitoring of sanitation systems and waste-harvesting to produce methane-based electricity. “Since 2003, diarrhea has killed more children than all the people lost to armed conflict since World War II,” Mr. Kluge has said. “Access to a clean and safe toilet was something I used to take for granted, but I am convinced it is the key to unlocking the potential of emerging markets and eliminating extreme poverty.”

  • MASHA PEARL | Blue Card

    Masha Pearl delivers aid to Holocaust survivors in the U.S., providing financial assistance, health services, grants and vacations. Ms. Pearl was promoted to the role last April as a result of her success expanding Blue Card’s donor base and her expertise in Holocaust-related issues. Ms. Pearl is also a member of the board of directors of Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) Young Leadership Group, which provides life-saving heart surgeries and care for children in third-world countries.

  • TARA FORD SPIEGEL | Ronald McDonald House

    Native New Yorker Tara Ford Spiegel is known not just for her philanthropy but the flair she brings to a cause. A former directors’ agent, she blends entertainment industry savvy with high style, as with the Masquerade Gala, which in 2013 raised more than $750,000 for children battling cancer at Ronald McDonald House.

  • ERIC TRUMP | St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital

    Since 2006, Eric Trump has raised more than $28 million for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and made the Eric Trump Foundation into one of the largest private charities in the country. Dedicated to children with life-threatening diseases, Mr. Trump’s philanthropic initiatives utilize full-time volunteers, donated products and pro bono celebrity performers to maintain one of the lowest expense ratios of any charity in the world. Last year, the Trump Foundation’s AMKL Cancer Research Lab, partnering with Washington University, identified a critical fusion gene responsible for almost 30 percent of a rare type of childhood leukemia.

  • SAM FOX | Michael J. Fox Foundation

    Sam Fox undertakes epic challenges in the name of Parkinson’s disease research. Inspired by his mother, Lucy, who has Parkinson’s, the outreach and engagement officer for the Michael J. Fox Foundation has gone on runs of 100 miles (from New York to Southampton in 24 hours) and 2,650 miles (from Canada to Mexico in 60 days), raising more than $200,000 in the process.

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