in conversation: strategic philanthropy

Part-time residents of Dutchess County for over three decades, Russ and Judy Carson generously support a range of interests through their family trust. We sat down with Russ to discuss how good luck, hard work and resolve have helped shape their ideas about giving.

You went to public high school in Toledo.

My parents moved to Toledo during World War II, and I spent my early years there. I came east to Dartmouth College, then I went to Columbia Business School. When I arrived, it was the second time in my life I had ever set foot in New York City.

Wow.

One of the reasons I went to Columbia was to see whether I liked living in a big city. My expectation was that I'd stay maybe five years after I graduated, hopefully get a good job, build a skill and then go back to the Midwest. And here I am 50 years later. I've really become a New Yorker, but for years when people asked, "Where are you from?" I'd say, "Toledo."

Describe the Toledo of your youth.

It was a good Midwestern experience, good Midwestern values. My dad ran the largest insurance company in town, and then he moved to running the largest bank in town. He and my mother were always involved in philanthropic activities. That's part of the reason I got interested in philanthropy as I got further along in my career. My parents had set a very good example for me.

Talk a little bit about your own family.

I met my wife in New York, and we've been married for 45 years. She has been a perfect partner. She has a big heart and likes to be active in things. We have two kids. Our daughter lives in Manhattan, and our son lives out in Brooklyn. We're pleased our kids have turned out just the way we would want. They're very sensitive about other people, and sensitive about needs of the community. 

And when the kids were young, you found Millbrook.

We did. We decided we wanted to give the kids more exposure to the outdoors. We looked at two alternatives: a primary residence in Westchester or in Connecticut, or buying a second home. The first weekend we looked at buying a primary residence. I tell the story that one kid threw up in the car of the real estate agent who was showing us around, and the other kid threw up in our car on the way home, which put a bit of a damper on that whole idea. The second time, we went without the kids and came on Millbrook at the end of the day. We looked at four properties, and by the time the week was out we had a deal.

And how did you plug into the community?

Millbrook was a very interesting community when we arrived. Bennett College had been the primary employer in town. It had gone out of business in the 70s, and as a result the population took a big hit. It was sort of at the bottom of the economic cycle when we first came and it's obviously been a very resilient community. It's come back dramatically. At any rate, the fact that it was a small community made it pretty easy to find and get to know other people.

At some point, you got to know people associated with Berkshire Taconic and began talking about needs in the community.

For a long time I honestly didn't want to be involved because I was working very hard. I had started a business in the city. I was spending a lot of time on that, so I basically wanted the weekends free. But we slowly began to get involved.

We have 200 acres of land that require upkeep and maintenance. And the people working on the property were really hard-working, very decent people. A good number don't speak English, and it was clear that there was a growing immigrant community who were doing a lot of important jobs in Millbrook. My supposition, which was supported by things I read, was that people had needs that weren't being addressed. It's very hard to be an immigrant and come to a country where you don't speak the language natively. It's difficult to get around, difficult to find a job. Once you have a job, it's difficult to upgrade from the job that you have.

That led to getting involved with the foundation. The first gift we made was part of a challenge grant. And then we started talking together about this idea: We're living a very good life here. How can we help? The foundation came back to us with the idea of employing to social workers that would help connect low-income people in the community with services available to them. And that really resonated with us, so my family and I have been funding the program [NED Corps] ever since. We think it's done exactly what we were hoping it would do.

We could've just given money to one charity. I think this has a much bigger impact. It connects people with services that are already available, as opposed to trying to create a new service. And it deals directly with whatever the specific needs may be, whether it's housing, food or education.

Is there a thread that connects the elements of your philanthropy?

One thing that's very clear in life is that some of us have been very lucky. I don't think I'm the smartest guy in the world; I've been very lucky. I think you come to a realization that there's something bigger in life than just you, and if you have been lucky, you feel an obligation to share that. And to the extent that you can help others realize the dream of a better life, it's very satisfying, but it's also necessary in the community. You can't afford to have a divided community of haves and havenots, where there's no feeling of community between the two. One of our conclusions about philanthropy is that we've done very well, but we can't solve the world's problems. We can't solve the problem of AIDS, or hunger in Africa, or other things. The way we can be most helpful is to focus on the communities we live in. By concentrating our resources in a more limited way, we can actually make a difference.

Do you think people are born generous?

I think so much of it comes from the way you're brought up. My parents were always strongly socially conscious. They didn't talk about it that much at home, but it's something that seems into you. I can remember when I graduated from Dartmouth College, the next year I went to Columbia Business School. I think I sent a check for ten dollars to Dartmouth (laughs). I've sent some much bigger checks since then, but I think it was what my parents had ingrained in me. And as Judy and I approach the end of our lives, it's very meaningful to us to be able to give something back.

Do you think people who have success have a special obligation to give back?

It's something I've thought a lot about. I think everybody needs to make that decision for themselves. Are you going through life with the purpose of hoarding and accumulating things? Or are you going through life trying to make your own life enjoyable, and also trying to help those who need help?

If you could encourage others to find a way to have the meaningful impact you're having, what would you say?

I think we want to have an inclusive community. We want people in the community to have decent lives. And everybody's definition of a decent life is different, but everybody ought to care about their neighbors. And your neighbors include not only the people that own the land next to you, but the people that are working on the land or working in the town.

I think Millbrook is a very generous community. I also think the Northeast Dutchess Fund is an ideal way for people to be able to contribute financial resources that can be professionally directed to where the need is greatest. There was a desire on our part to do something in the community, but we needed the education in terms of what could we do. And if it weren't for Berkshire Taconic, we wouldn't have been exposed to understanding what was going on in the community. To their credit, they came to us with the perfect solution. The trick in philanthropy is matching the right donor with the right project, and I give them a lot of credit for doing that. 

So I would hope that other people would take advantage of that opportunity, to the extent that they have repressed giving urge. Get some outside help in terms of trying to figure out what is it you care about and what can you do about it.

Your accomplishments are well-known. Much of your work and life remain ahead of you -

(laughing) I'm 72 years old. I'm not sure how long they remain ahead of me.

How do you think others will remember you?

I'd say at the end of the day I would like people to think of me as somebody who is a thoughtful, generous person within his community, whether the community be New York City or Millbrook. Somebody who cared enough to try and make a difference.

Russ
Russ

Photo by John Dolan