Arthur Blank’s mission to give away his wealth

At 77, the Home Depot founder, who has a net worth of about 4.7 billion, decides the best way he can spend his time is by giving away his fortune

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Arthur Blank
Arthur Blank

Photograph by Kevin D. Liles

When Arthur Blank was growing up in Queens in the 1950s, his parents slept on a pull-out bed in the foyer of their apartment. Arthur and his older brother, Michael, slept in the lone bedroom. In the living room, the family kept a pushke—a small collection box into which family members dropped coins, for eventual distribution to the poor in the Blanks’ neighborhood of Sunnyside.

In Judaism, the act of giving is tzedakah—a righteous behavior. In the 12th century, the Torah scholar Maimonides assigned levels to different types of charity, with giving out of pity as the least worthy and giving to make someone self-sufficient the most noble. The recipient of tzedakah does a favor to the giver by accepting the gift.

Decades later, after Blank and his business partner, Bernie Marcus, took the Home Depot public, the two wanted to practice tzedakah through their business. The first donation was $25,000 to Camp Twin Lakes, a camp for children with disabilities, special needs, and serious illnesses that today operates three separate facilities and serves hundreds of children each year. At the store level, associates were assumed to know their markets best and were empowered to meet local needs independently. After the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, for example, workers from a nearby Home Depot donated supplies without asking corporate for permission. If Habitat for Humanity needed help, the company stepped in. Today, we’d call it corporate responsibility, but for Blank and Marcus, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, giving back was spiritual.

“Part of our faith is to help repair the world and make it a better place,” Blank says. “Do what we can. Put our soul into it like everybody else, and use our resources and our intellect, our financial resources, any emotional, spiritual resources we have, to try to make a difference.”

Blank was 58 when he stepped down as Home Depot president and CEO in 2001. Marcus, 14 years older, had relinquished the CEO job to Blank four years earlier, and he had already turned his attention to philanthropy—funding, among other things, the Georgia Aquarium, trauma and stroke centers at Grady Memorial Hospital, and autism research and treatment. Blank had other ideas. First, he bought a luxury guest ranch in Montana. Then, in 2002, he bought the Atlanta Falcons NFL football franchise for $545 million, a team whose current value Forbes estimates at nearly $2.8 billion. Then, he bought the PGA Superstores retail chain. Then, he built a new stadium for the Falcons. He even found a second tenant for it, in the form of a Major League Soccer franchise that he started and effectively owns. (Forbes estimates Atlanta United’s value at $500 million.)

In other words, Blank wasn’t done making money. Not even close. The organizing and functioning principles that grew Home Depot from two stores in 1979 to 1,123 in 20 years—hire smart people, empower them, pay them well—proved to be remarkably effective in the business of sports, no less retail an operation than selling hammers, when you think about it.

When Blank left Home Depot, his net worth was estimated to be just over $1 billion. By last year, even allowing for the more than $500 million his foundation has given away over the past 25 years, his net worth had grown to an estimated $4.7 billion. The realities of Blank’s preposterous success now represent a particular challenge when it comes to his philanthropy: how to increase the rate and volume of giving to keep pace with his earnings while staying true to his foundation’s DNA. This challenge is compounded by some actuarial realities: Blank is 77. He’s fought cancer, twice. An accountant by training, he knows numbers. As his friend and fellow billionaire Ken Langone puts it, any bad investment can be recouped by simply making more money. Except for one. “With the time I spend,” Langone says, “I can’t get that back.”

When Blank talks to college students, he advises them not to focus on their resume but to live their eulogy. “Don’t compromise your values, principles, integrity, relationships along the way,” he says. “Am I living my life every day to match that eulogy?”

At a time when progressive politicians and some members of the middle class are questioning whether billionaires, however philanthropic, should even exist—and when the country and globe are on the brink of the largest catastrophe in a century or more­—can Blank give away enough of his wealth to satisfy his own desire for tzedakah—let alone society’s unprecedented need for it?

Part of our faith is to help repair the world and make it a better place.

Every summer in Montana, when RVs congest Highway 89, where billboards are banned and the asphalt runs until it meets Yellowstone National Park, Blank retreats to his home at Mountain Sky ranch. Blank first came here in 1998 as a guest with his second wife, Stephanie, and their newborn twins. They found themselves returning year after year, entranced by the majestic beauty of the landscape, with its fields of wheatgrass climbing toward the Absaroka mountains.

“Once we came out here, the sense of family, the sense of being connected to each other, to other families, to outdoors—all the things that we care deeply about, really—became an important part of our life,” Blank says, comfortable in the living room of his private rustic home, just a short walk from the main lodge at Mountain Sky. In 2001, Blank bought the place, his first for-profit endeavor after leaving Home Depot, and began a sort of second career: hotelier. Mountain Sky is now a plush resort, where the well-heeled (a family of four can expect to spend north of $20,000 for a week’s stay) can enjoy yoga in the mornings; horseback riding, fly fishing, or golf in the afternoons; and dinners of bison tenderloin and smoked duck breast.

Montana has long been a destination for the wealthy. In 1888, Helena, 156 miles to the northwest of Mountain Sky, was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation. But while the state’s natural beauty inspired buyers, it rarely inspired givers. In 2002, a year before Blank purchased his ranch, Montana had only $336 million in foundation assets, ranking 48th in the country. Georgia, by comparison, boasted more than $8 billion.

Early on, Blank gathered his Mountain Sky employees—he refers to them, and they refer to themselves, as associates—in the lodge. He explained he wanted to contribute to the Paradise Valley community, but he did not necessarily want to focus on the causes he supported in Atlanta. Montana had different needs, and he’d be leaning on them, from the groundskeepers to the hospitality director, for guidance. He created a committee of nine or so staffers, much like he and Marcus did at Home Depot, to suggest worthy causes or visit applicant sites. In 2001, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s first round of grants to Montana nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club of Livingston, Gallatin County Land Trust, and United Way totaled $200,000. Today, almost 60 associates serve on the Blank Foundation’s Montana advisory giving committee, which has awarded nearly $6.8 million since its inception. The associate-led grantmaking program that was born at his Montana operation, known as AMB West, was replicated by all of Blank’s businesses, from the golf retail stores to the Falcons. In 2019, more than 240 associates oversaw the distribution of more than $6.7 million to nonprofits.

Arthur Blank
Blank plans to conserve a sizable chunk of the more than 24,300 acres he owns in Montana.

Photograph courtesy of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation

In a spread-out state with a small population, the Blank Foundation’s presence has been “a rare bird,” says Mike Schechtman, the executive director of Helena’s Big Sky Institute for the Advancement of Nonprofits, which studies nonprofits and foundations. “The whole vision which came from Arthur about empowering the employees to be involved in the grantmaking that so directly impacts where they live as individuals and families, that is pretty unique.”

For the past 40 years, Montana has had one of the highest suicide rates in the country, with numbers especially high among Native Americans and young people. In recent years, the youth suicide rate has been nearly triple the national average. A Blank Foundation grant to places like Sunnyside Farms, a fjord horse farm in the tiny town of Clyde Park, an hour outside Bozeman, has provided free therapy to children living on low incomes and also battling mental illness and depression. Blank’s giving in Montana has become a sort of seal of approval, says Wendy Bauwens, the owner of Sunnyside. “People see that this group finds our mission worthy, and they follow,” she says. “It’s helped me immensely.”

Robin Hill used to describe his hometown of Bozeman as a “dark cloud.” “People would travel to Bozeman, they would enjoy the mountains and come skiing and think it was this happy-go-lucky place,” Hill, who’s 32, said. “That wasn’t my experience as a teenager. It was really hard.” Underneath the beauty and majesty were challenges, he said: suicide, income inequality, and drug use. In addition to the usual problems teenagers experience, the rugged environment and ethos of Montana could prove extra challenging. “Montana has this ‘bootstraps’ mentality that doesn’t always focus on vulnerability and emotions and process. It’s the ‘get over it’ mentality. When you’re a kid going through hard stuff, ‘get over it’ is the most counterproductive mentality you could experience.” After graduate school, he joined a youth mentorship nonprofit called the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Project. Today, he’s its executive director. The Blank Foundation was its first-ever foundation funder, in 2004. Over the years, it’s donated a total of $108,000, making it possible for BYEP to add programs and go rope-climbing at Mountain Sky’s Base Camp high above the main lodge.

Last October, Blank hosted a working lunch in the lodge at West Creek Ranch, a 6,600-acre working ranch just south of Mountain Sky that he purchased three years ago. One draw was that a conservation easement kept the property from being developed or used for profit. Joining him were 30 associates—department leaders, cowboys, golf pros, and ranch hands, each of whom worked for Blank at either Mountain Sky, West Creek, or the Foundation in Atlanta. For Blank, this would serve as an annual progress report about the nonprofit initiatives his dollars were funding out west. When Tawnya Rupe, whose 23-year career at Mountain Sky began as a horse wrangler and now involves working with nonprofits, noted that civic leaders wanted to learn more about day care, Blank recommended they contact GEEARS, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that focuses on early-childhood development chaired by Stephanie, with whom he remains close, and which plans to conduct a study of daycare access in Montana.

In another initiative, Blank is developing a long-term plan to remove encroaching conifers that block sunlight from reaching the ground, killing off the undergrowth eaten by the elk and deer that live along and migrate over the hills. When Blank was told a local nonprofit had used some of his trees for a Christmas tree fundraising drive, he laughed. Organizations were using Mountain Sky’s golf course woods for fundraisers? Maybe the pros who work at his chain of PGA Tour Superstores could fly up and help? The associates were making great strides, Blank concluded, but they could always push harder.

“We need to think just outside of the box a little more,” Blank said, then offered a smile. “It’s a real pain in the ass to have me here, right?”

Blank was 15 when his father died of a heart attack at 44, and his mother took over his dad’s pharmaceutical business. The loss instilled in Blank an abiding commitment to fitness and wellness. In high school, he played football, baseball, and ran track. Then, he put himself through Babson College in Boston, doing laundry and landscaping. In his thirties, Blank discovered a new passion: running. Morning after morning, he’d wake up and run a little farther than the day before. Between his and Marcus’s famous firing in 1978 from Handy Dan, the hardware-store chain the two had led as CEO and CFO, respectively, and their launch of the Home Depot the following year, he trained for his first marathon. By 1982, he was clocking 55 miles a week leading up to the New York Marathon. The sport inspired a motto that he took to his business and then his foundation: “There is no finish line.”

Blank and Marcus were relentlessly competitive and self-critical. They put themselves through the same peer-review process as other Home Depot executives. Blank was considered to be, not surprisingly, highly intelligent, diligent, and a control freak, writes Chris Roush, the author of Inside Home Depot. Even when Home Depot was performing exceptionally by Wall Street standards, board meetings were often filled with discussion about what the company was doing wrong. Ron Brill, the company’s first employee who worked as an executive vice president under Blank and Marcus until he retired in 2001, put in overtime to make sure Blank didn’t catch errors before he did. “That wasn’t easy to do,” Brill said. “He was on top of things, looking at the numbers, payroll, inventory. He read everything.” When Brill would travel with the co-founders to investor meetings, Marcus, a born salesman, would save his prep for the plane ride. Blank, though, would spend days ahead of the trip poring over reports, double-checking presentations, and rereading talking points. To this day, Blank likes to observe what’s called the “three-day rule”: Anything people want to discuss must be presented to him three days in advance, and he always has questions.

“At first, I was intimidated,” Alicia Philipp, the former CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, says about the first time she met Blank. But now, she says, “I’ve found him to be one of the warmest, just caring people. He kind of defies the image that some people might have, or who don’t know him. He’s a tough businessman who ran a big business, yes. When it comes to his philanthropy and desire to make a difference, he’s very thoughtful and caring. He listens well, is willing to learn. He wants to know about you. ‘Who are you?’ ‘What do you think?’ Not every former CEO has that attitude about life.”

In the early 1980s, Rabbi Donald Tam was leading Temple Emanu-El in Roswell. It was a congregation without a synagogue. Friday night service took place in banks after hours and conference rooms. One day, Blank walked into the office with his first wife, Diana. Tam discouraged Blank from joining the growing house of worship. “I said, We’re not anything. We don’t have a building. I’m not sure this is the right place for you. If you want to create connections with people who are important, I’d suggest the Temple [in Midtown]. He said to me, with regard to networking, I don’t go to synagogue for that reason.” Over the years, the two men became friends. One time, during a sailing trip to the Virgin Islands on a boat owned by John Williams, the late developer who introduced Blank to the family from whom he bought the Falcons and whom Blank considered a brother, the rabbi looked back after dinner in a restaurant and saw Blank busing their table. When Tam was unhappy with a job in Ottawa, Blank traveled to Canada to woo him back to launch Temple Beth Tikvah. And when the rabbi retired, Blank endowed Emory University with a $5 million gift to name its Jewish studies institute in Tam’s name.

If the stadium didn’t lift up its neighbors, it would be a “failure.”

In the early 1990s, state leaders bulldozed a vibrant, middle-class neighborhood called Lightning to build the Georgia Dome. Over the following years, city, state, and federal governments made roughly $100 million in grants and investments in the surrounding areas of Vine City and English Avenue, once thriving, predominantly black, working-class communities. But by the tail end of the Great Recession, the neighborhoods were no better off than before. From the 1990s to 2015, the population of English Avenue and Vine City plummeted from 9,000 to 3,000, leaving decaying apartment buildings and overgrown lots. Over time, the communities across the street from the Georgia Dome found themselves against the headwinds of every negative force afflicting modern urban communities: systemic poverty, real-estate speculation, crime, disinvestment, underperforming schools. To make a difference in these neighborhoods would require not just more money, but more money invested wisely.

In early 2014, Blank persuaded the state to extend a hotel and motel tax to help subsidize the construction of a new $1.6 billion stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. Building what would become Mercedes-Benz Stadium required the destruction of two black churches, and some longtime observers believed it was just another instance of historic Atlanta being leveled in the name of progress. Blank insisted this time would be different—that as a new stadium would rise in place of the Georgia Dome, so too would new hope in an area of Atlanta that was running woefully short of it.

Around the same time, Frank Fernandez was being considered to run point for Blank on the English Avenue and Vine City revitalization efforts. For eight years, Fernandez had led Green Doors, a nonprofit in Austin, Texas, that worked with residents and police to improve the Pecan Springs community, an area struggling with homelessness, crime, and unemployment. Blank told Fernandez that for the stadium to be a good neighbor, it couldn’t just be LEED-certified or manage its stormwater runoff efficiently. The stadium might be best in the nation, but if it didn’t lift up its neighbors, it would be, Blank told Fernandez, a “failure.”

With the Blank Foundation setting the pace, efforts to revitalize the two neighborhoods morphed into a sort of mini–Marshall Plan, with the energies and resources of hundreds of civic, business, and philanthropic leaders all directing their attention toward one goal. The west side would be a bold example of social engineering. Blank hired Fernandez to lead the Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund in 2014, and within a year, the Foundation committed $15 million—matched by $15 million from Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm—and pledged to rally the city, police, neighborhood associations, nonprofits, other foundations, and businesses to push for “long-term and sustainable change,” as Blank put it. SunTrust and NCR followed, contributing $25 million. The Foundation set up an office in English Avenue, led by Fernandez (who was also named the Foundation’s senior vice president). It took over an old school and created Westside Works, a workforce development program, and, with the help of the Metro YMCA, the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia, and other partners, trained residents and placed them in well-paying jobs in construction, culinary arts, healthcare, IT, and childcare—including at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. New parks are being built in the community, including Rodney Cook Sr. Park, which will help alleviate flooding. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy came aboard, launching the Westside Future Fund, and has donated $40 million to area organizations. The Atlanta Police Foundation, the city, and the Blank Foundation helped build housing for police officers and the At-Promise Youth and Community Center, a facility operated by APF where young people in trouble with the law can play sports, get tutored, or start a radio program. Nearly 350 teens participated in the center’s inaugural year, the Blank Foundation says. To fend off displacement, the Foundation partnered with Quest Communities, a small affordable-housing developer in Vine City, to secure land and rehabilitate houses.

According to the Foundation, crime in the west side neighborhoods is down by 43 percent since 2018. Nearly 900 residents of English Avenue and Vine City graduated from the Westside Works program and have together earned $22 million in wages. Roughly 70 percent of those people have retained their jobs, the Foundation says. To date, the Foundation has invested $50 million—$35 million more than its initial investment—on public safety, securing land for affordable housing, and programs.

“I think we’ve been able to win them over in terms of seeing the impact of our investment,” says Fernandez, who left the organization earlier this year to lead the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta. “There are a lot of people who said when the stadium opened, you’d pull up stakes. That passed. Then, it was the Super Bowl. That passed, and we’re still there. Folks know we’re committed and that we’re always open to dialogue and open to getting it right.”

Arthur Blank
Blank is a longtime supporter of Habitat for Humanity.

Photograph courtesy of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation

At the end of the 19th century, America’s shift from an agrarian economy to the Industrial Age created a new generation of tycoons, barons, and oligarchs—and with them, unprecedented wealth inequality. In 1889, Andrew Carnegie, a steel magnate who was in his time the richest man in America, urged masters of the Gilded Age to give away their fortunes. The wealthiest, he wrote, “have it in their power during their lives to busy themselves in organizing benefactions from which the masses of their fellows will derive lasting advantage, and thus dignify their own lives.” Two years later, Carnegie retired and began the second phase of his life: philanthropy. Before his death in 1919—and after giving away 90 percent of his wealth to build thousands of libraries across the country, construct Carnegie Hall, and fund scientific research—he created the Carnegie Corporation to give away the rest of his riches after he died.

There’s a joke in the philanthropy industry that when you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation. Each is tailored to the whims of its founder. “The best philanthropy, like the best art, springs from personal passion,” says David Callahan, the editor of Inside Philanthropy and author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. “People need to give in areas they’re deeply excited about and believe in. It’s rare for a philanthropist to follow an abstract formula for where their money could have the most impact. There are a billion choices.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $50.1 billion in initiatives to lift developing countries and reduce poverty by making vaccines more available and inventing a waterless toilet. Ted Turner spent $1 billion to tackle nuclear disarmament and support the United Nations. The Koch Brothers pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into ballet at the Lincoln Center for the Arts and cancer research, while also marshaling like-minded free-market corporate titans to fund an army of advocacy organizations and sway politics.

On its face, the Blank Foundation’s mission statement is intentionally broad. The Foundation “promotes positive change in people’s lives and builds and enhances the communities in which they live” and will “seek innovative solutions that enable young people, families, and communities to achieve results beyond what seems possible today.” Blank has spread his money over greenspace, education, community revitalization, and financial literacy. But unlike Carnegie, his interests and investments have steered more toward the human condition, rather than the built environment. Viewed as a whole, a theme emerges: Blank wants to chip away at generational issues that stifle the middle class and exacerbate income inequality, which plagues Atlanta more than any other city in the country.

“The gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country has grown significantly,” Blank says. “That’s not a good thing. The country was built on having a great middle class and opportunity for all, and virtually everybody that came to this country came with those aspirations and those hopes to be able to participate in that. I’m not talking about socialism, but I think we have to create an environment where a strong middle class is an important part of our country. It was that way in the past, and it needs to be that way again in the future.”

For Blank, that desire to see a resurgent middle class is a callback to his roots and the people who helped Blank and Marcus build a business empire. Home Depot blossomed during the go-go Reagan and Clinton years, when suburban sprawl turned forestland into subdivisions with homes that needed ceiling fans and strip malls with 40,000-square-foot big-box retail stores.

“His thinking was oriented toward a group that was seen as an underclass,” Tam says. “He was competitive, but, at the same time, he knew there were groups that could not compete because they were overcome by environments or burdens that were terrible, and still are.”

Penny McPhee joined the Blank Foundation as president in 2004 after working at the Knight Foundation for 13 years. The strategic targets that were in place when she arrived—education, greenspace, arts and culture—have held firm, she says. Rarely is the Foundation the sole funder of a project, preferring instead to collaborate with other groups and leverage investments. Last year, it gave its largest contribution to date: $50 million—the seed capital of a $150 million “challenge grant”—to Babson College, Blank’s alma mater. More often than not, the grants it awards are smaller, strategic, and catalytic. In English Avenue and Vine City, the Foundation paid $140,000 to the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice to help longtime residents sort out title issues with their properties—a highly complicated but hugely impactful exercise in legal housekeeping that prevents investors from foreclosing on private homes. In the process, it prevents displacement and investors capitalizing on the greatest source of generational wealth available to any family in America, especially families of color.

Today, the Blank Foundation employs 23 program officers, senior vice presidents, and communications professionals. That doesn’t include the employee committees of Blank’s for-profit businesses who, taking a page from Home Depot’s philanthropic handbook, help vet funding requests but also meet, strategize, and collaborate with the nonprofits they fund. Each year, Blank dedicates a portion of his businesses’ profits to their respective foundations or the Blank Foundation. The model emphasizes listening to the needs of a community through charrettes, surveys, site visits, and interviews and responding with solutions, rather than swooping in with a think tank’s latest proposal.

For the most part, says Makeda Johnson, who lived first in the shadow of the Georgia Dome and now sees Mercedes-Benz Stadium from her porch, the Foundation has been an engaged participant in her neighborhood’s revitalization—though she says its investments could have gone much further if it would have partnered with more nonprofits operated by people who live in the community. “If you want to do something new and innovative, you have to take more risks,” says Johnson, who launched a community news website focusing on the neighborhoods in 2016. “You have to take risks with the people already in place. You’re talking about transformation—that’s very personal. You’re not going to talk about that with [people from the outside].”

West Creek Ranch is intended solely for use by nonprofits, thinkers, civic groups, and academia invited by the Blank Foundation. When Foundation leaders and their partners in the Funders for Montana’s Children saw a need for more private-sector support for programs benefiting early childhood in Montana, they invited business leaders from around Montana to meet each other, share ideas, and hear from experts.

Invited groups enjoy three meals a day, comfortable accommodations, and, in the office cabin, their pick from dozens of waders and lures to catch trout in the Yellowstone River just down the hill or Big Creek, between West Creek and Mountain Sky. Their use of the property and its programs, including a “Base Camp” that includes rustic cabins and a ropes challenge course—plus board games for nighttime bonding—is free. The only requirement is that the groups spend at least 50 percent of their time outdoors. In the early 1980s, Blank and Marcus sent executives to Outward Bound, the wilderness survival program launched by Marjorie Buckley, an early Home Depot investor. “It’s not just fun and games,” Blank says. “But if they’re dealing with issues of communication and trust and partnerships, we can use [outdoor] activities to help give them different perspectives on how to improve in those areas: self-confidence, self-growth, group growth.”

In 2016, Blank hired Steve Cannon, the CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, to oversee AMB Group’s for-profit businesses. Later that year, Blank was diagnosed with a treatable form of prostate cancer. In 2019, the cancer returned. After undergoing treatment at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Blank says, he’s cancer free. Just after Christmas, Blank announced Dan Quinn would remain the team’s head coach and that, moving forward, team leaders including General Manager Thomas Dimitroff would report to Falcons CEO Rich McKay, not Blank. “Continuity is important in the NFL, and in any business,” he said at the time.

Blank has no intentions of slowing down or shedding businesses; he envisions passing his sports teams to his children, and he says he expects his youngest daughter, who cleaned toilets and ran programs as an intern at Mountain Sky for the past three summers between college classes, to play some role in the ranch. But fewer direct reports means fewer fires to put out and more time focusing on what he calls his true passion: philanthropy. When McPhee joined the Blank Foundation, it was giving roughly $25 million, with the hope of doubling that amount within a few years. But Blank has grown wealthier, making it more challenging to fulfill his commitment to the Giving Pledge, a challenge posed by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to wealthy people around the world to commit most of their wealth to charity during their lifetimes or in their wills. Blank, Marcus, Ted Turner, and Sara Blakely are Atlanta signatories. Blank has stated publicly that he intends to donate 95 percent of his wealth to either his foundation or other nonprofits.

In the next 10 years, McPhee expects, grant amounts will be larger, and Blank’s six children will play a larger role in determining the Foundation’s focus areas than in the past. “All of our meetings are on the round table,” Blank says. “We don’t use the square table intentionally because their father doesn’t sit at the head of anything. I get one vote on everything, and they get one vote on everything.” How the Foundation will pivot to reflect the changing needs of the world and the interests of his children will be announced soon but could include climate change and preventing gun violence, Blank says—two causes close to his two oldest daughters, Danielle and Dena. As executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, his oldest son, Kenny, has sought out films that aim to increase dialogue between cultures.

“I believe in the wisdom of the kids, so I’m not going to try to run my foundation from my grave,” Blank says. “The world is changing. Needs are changing.” A $6.8 million check to CARE—the Foundation’s first donation to a global cause—kickstarted an effort to fund microloans for women and mothers in Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria to start businesses. Blank made the donation, he said, because he knows the problems of today are global, and he wanted to remind his youngest children, who are now in college, his employees, and the board, to look outside their own world. In late March, he donated roughly $5.4 million to help communities in Atlanta and Montana recover from COVID-19, and the foundation partnered with nonprofit CORE Response to provide free tests in Atlanta, DeKalb, and other cities in Georgia. And in September, Blank published Good Company, his first book focused on how “values-based” businesses can earn profits and make a difference in society. All of Blank’s proceeds from the book will be donated to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

As people age, Blank says, they try to find their higher purpose. “How do they save not only themselves but humanity? What’s the purpose of everything? All my success, how am I going to use it? How am I going to help others make a difference in their lives and the lives of other people?”

A version of this article appears in our May 2020 issue. Some sections have been updated to reflect events that occurred since its initial print publication.

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