Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust Breaks New Ground in a Critical Health Niche

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust Breaks New Ground in a Critical Health Niche

Generating public concern about less widely known diseases—and speeding biomedical research to find a cure for them—is an important niche for private philanthropies in an era of shrinking government budgets. Sometimes, the catalysts for funding are smaller, single-issue philanthropies like the U.K.-based Legatum Foundation, which, since 2006, has focused on the problem of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in Africa. Legatum’s initial success in just two countries, Rwanda and Burundi, with just $9 million in start-up funding, eventually drew the attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (see our earlier report) and eventually led to the creation of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, an organization that advocates for increased funding for NTDs. It wasn’t long before governments began making their own commitments to tackle NTDs throughout the African continent.

But not all niche funding catalysts are small—or unknown. Consider the case of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Co-founder Leona was already famous, especially to New Yorkers, as an eccentric socialite who once expressed the belief that wealthy people shouldn’t have to pay taxes (“That’s for little people,” she opined). After her conviction for tax evasion in 1992, few expected the billionaire hotelier to devote her remaining years focusing on the needs of human beings less fortunate than herself. In fact, prior to her death, it was widely rumored that she was planning to leave her entire estate to the charitable care of neglected and abused pets. It didn’t turn out that way. Thanks to ambiguities in the “mission statements” she issued prior to her death, and to the maneuverings of her heirs, her enormous charity never got around to supporting pets. Instead, it has carved out an important niche seeking a cure for type 1 diabetes (widely known as T1D). The Helmsley Charitable Trust has other program goals, but none quite as important as this one. And the foundation is no small shop. In 2016, it reported assets of $5.5 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 2010. Its massive funding (about $265 million in grants in 2016), especially when coupled with investments from like-minded donors, provides enormous leverage for change. . .

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