Learning the lessons of philanthropy in the Lauder family

One afternoon a few years ago, Eliana Lauder was sitting around a table with two dozen other teenagers debating which was more important: funding groups that provide direct aid to the needy or funding educational organizations that help raise achievement levels.

“The room split into two groups,” said Eliana, now 19 and a sophomore at Duke University. “We were basically arguing the chicken or the egg: What’s more important?”

As legend has it, that epic argument went on for seven hours.

The teens were members of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Jewish Teen Foundation Board, a youth program that Eliana’s mother helped establish. Training teenagers to raise money, study issues and make grants by group consensus, it provides some early lessons in the highs and lows of being a philanthropist.

So what conclusion did the teen board reach?

“We ended up having a really broad mission statement that advocated for education and basic needs,” Eliana explained of the consensus over her tenure. “That means you’re going to have a wider portfolio of what you’re going to be donating to, but you can run into problems later.”

Eliana and her brother, Josh, 21, have been making their own charitable donations ever since they began receiving an allowance in grade school. Their parents, Laura and Gary Lauder, are committed Bay Area philanthropists who instilled in their children the value of giving early.

Josh Lauder leads a Lauder Family Giving Circle meeting.

“I got my age [in allowance dollars], and then a third would go to charity, a third would go into my savings account and a third would go into my wallet,” said Eliana, who, with her brother, grew up in Atherton and attended Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. “So essentially I started building up this fund as a third of my weekly allowance into a charitable fund where I would choose at the end of the month where I wanted to donate it.”

Starting with those childhood lessons, Laura and Gary Lauder have carefully facilitated opportunities for their children to learn about giving as they moved through high school and now college. Josh, who also served on the Teen Foundation Board, is a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The couple have brought their entrepreneurial business backgrounds into their approach to philanthropy: Gary Lauder is the managing director of Lauder Partners, a venture capital firm he founded, and Laura Lauder is a full-time “venture philanthropist” who has launched several organizations and programs and works with beneficiaries to help them grow leaders and build their organizations.

The Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund, founded in 1995, cites Jewish values in its mission statement and has supported many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Teen Foundation Board Incubator, which wants to take the teen board model to Jewish communities across North America as well as in Australia and Israel.

Now that the Lauder children are adults, their parents engage them in a new way. Both children have donor-advised funds through the Federation, funded by their bar and bat mitzvah gifts, and together with their parents, they form the Lauder Family Giving Circle to make joint family grants to nonprofits.

Based on the Teen Foundation Board model, the giving circle is a way for Josh and Eliana to multiply the power of their dollars while learning how to evaluate grant proposals and select worthy organizations. A professional adviser helps Josh and Eliana sort through proposals before sitting down for an annual grant-making meeting with their parents.

In so doing, they  are taking a professional approach to philanthropy, one that Laura Lauder emphasizes.

“[The adviser] would work with the kids to eliminate anything that wasn’t good enough to bring to the giving circle meeting,” Laura Lauder said. “Usually we would have five or six grant proposals and choose three or four of them. I hope as they grow older they continue to use a professional to help guide them through a process like this.”

The Lauder Family Giving Circle has supported organizations such as 826 Valencia, Jewish Vocational Service and Second Harvest Food Bank, usually with gifts in the $10,000 to $15,000 range. These grants represent about 2.5 percent of Laura and Gary Lauder’s total giving, Laura Lauder said.

Both children credit their mother with being the most important influence in their commitment to giving and to making philanthropy a priority in their lives.

“She really has instilled in my sister and me that idea of how to give back to the community,” Josh said. “She really wants to instill in us the ethos of helping out the world.”

On the cover: Josh and Eliana with parents Laura and Gary Lauder

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.