What’s the Future of Boston Philanthropy?

Boston’s charitable dollar is now being stretched in new directions, will there be enough to go around in the future?

Illustration by Benjamen Purvis

It’s a tradition as American as apple pie: Every July Fourth since 1974, the Boston Pops have descended on the Hatch Shell for an evening of orchestral magic, followed by the red glare of a bombastic fireworks display. More than a million people flood the Esplanade each year to watch the spectacle unfold, and millions more tune in to the national broadcast on TV.

For years, this event was produced and personally bankrolled (to the tune of $1 million-plus annually) by its founder, philanthropist David Mugar, who remained inextricably tied to the event as an adviser even after his retirement in 2016. Just five months before the first Fourth of July
celebration in Boston since COVID, though, came tragic news: The $600 million Star Market heir had died.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has since pulled together funding from other benefactors to cover the cost of the event, including the global asset management firm Eaton Vance, Bloomberg, and Mass General Brigham. Yet Mugar’s death at 82 nonetheless put him on a long list of iconic Boston philanthropists who have recently passed, including healthcare exec Thomas Shields, real estate bigwig Robert Beal, and diplomat Elaine Schuster. In March, the city lost perhaps its most generous benefactor: Fidelity kingpin Edward C. Johnson III, the namesake behind a large percentage of millions in “anonymous” donations across Boston that have been crucial to budgets at institutions such as the MFA, the Peabody Essex Museum, and many more over the years.

Not necessarily shocking given their age, the passing of Mugar and Johnson, in particular, was yet another red flag that the small circle of mega-philanthropists who traditionally support the city’s world-class theaters, symphonies, hospitals, and more is rapidly shrinking. At the same time, the city’s corporate donor community has also undergone a seismic shift: Once primarily focused on local causes, Boston-based corporate giants such as Fidelity and John Hancock have partnered with international conglomerates and shifted to a more global focus over the past decade and a half, leaving questions about their commitment to the Hub.

Confounding matters is the fact that the next generation of givers seems to be far more discerning with their dollars. Rather than being satisfied with having their name on a university building, hospital wing, or gala brochure, industry watchers say they are much more hands-on, committed to ensuring their money has a true impact in building communities, creating equity and opportunity, and moving the social justice needle.

The stakes of this generational shift couldn’t be higher, particularly for Boston’s arts world, which is primarily funded through multimillion-dollar donations from the city’s top philanthropists and glitzy galas. It’s difficult to analyze giving as a whole over the past few years, but raw numbers show donations to some institutions are down. The Museum of Fine Arts, for instance, saw contributions from all sources reach $132.4 million in 2020 thanks to atypical gifts; by 2021, that number had decreased to $56.3 million, while the organization reported a $13 million operating deficit, much of which was attributed to COVID-related closures. Despite what the numbers show, chief external relations officer Cameran Mason says “philanthropy continues on an upward trajectory at the museum. We are grateful for the many dedicated and steady donors who continued their support of the MFA, especially throughout the challenges of the pandemic and multiple closures.”

The Boston Ballet, meanwhile, last year saw contributions cut in half, from $26 million in 2020 to just $12 million in 2021—though officials caution that those numbers are deceiving because donations surged during the pandemic lockdown to keep the organization afloat during closures. “We definitely see headwinds,” says Ming Min Hui, chief financial officer of Boston Ballet. “Down markets, tightening up in corporate philanthropy, tightening up in arts funding, all of that has trickle-down effects in the arts.”

So is philanthropy in Boston dying along with the scions who for decades bankrolled our biggest and most important institutions? Or, as some argue, is it just taking a new form?

Boston Ballet is among the local institutions that have had to get creative when it comes to cultivating the next generation of philanthropists. / Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Dot Joyce, the longtime press secretary for the late Mayor Thomas Menino, had a lot of conversations with Hizzoner over the years, but there’s one in particular that stands out in her head to this day. “The number one issue Mayor Menino used to talk about was, ‘Who is the next generation of stewards and philanthropists in our city?’” Joyce says now.

Perhaps the city’s most philanthropy-focused mayor, Menino knew that donations from the wealthiest Bostonians (and suburbanites) were key to filling budget gaps and supporting arts, cultural, medical, and academic institutions. He also knew that arts institutions make the city a place where people want to live or visit from the suburbs, which in turn helps keep restaurants and other businesses alive and makes Boston a town where companies want to headquarter. So Menino built bridge after bridge with donors to make it happen.

Today, Boston is three mayors removed from Menino, with an economy increasingly being driven by research, tech, and entrepreneurship. While support for the arts among older generations remains strong, some major players in the local philanthropy world believe that the COVID pandemic and the racial reckoning of 2020 have exposed a far more urgent human need and shifted the priorities of the city’s giving community—especially among Boston’s younger generations. “There are clearly emergent individual philanthropists in our city, and while they may not have the profile of the well-known philanthropists of the elder class, they’re still there, and they’re making a difference,” says Lee Pelton, who last year was named CEO and president of the Boston Foundation, one of the state’s largest philanthropic organizations. And “that emerging class of individual philanthropists are investing in areas where there is measurable impact”—think housing, food insecurity, and education, rather than universities, ballet, museums, and symphonies.

Case in point: Catherine D’Amato, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank, was concerned upon learning of the death of one of the charity’s biggest benefactors, Ted Cutler, who led a $35 million campaign that built the Food Bank’s 117,000-square-foot warehouse, that the organization’s funds would dwindle. She was instead awestruck by a tsunami of new donors during the pandemic, including one young couple who recently gave $2 million. In fact, the food bank saw 35,000 new donors during the pandemic and another 12,000 new contributors this year amid a flood of news stories about food insecurity. “The current generation of philanthropists have a more holistic approach,” D’Amato says. “There’s a broader number of people who have experienced some wealth that want to give back and are engaged in a variety of causes.”

D’Amato adds that the organization is keeping newer donors engaged through texting, email, and social media. The advent of technology has made it easier for budding philanthropists to not only donate but also to stay involved and track the impact of their giving dollars. “Philanthropy is now more of a complex investment exercise,” notes Sean Curran, a real estate and political consultant who has served on the boards of several nonprofits, including College Bound Dorchester, MassEquality, and Ellis Early Learning. “In the old days, [investors] could be swayed by the notion that they were giving to a good cause. Today, they closely track progress toward achieving the goals that their investment supported. The bar is raised, and nonprofits have been forced to up their game to be considered.”

It’s not just individual philanthropists’ priorities that are changing; it’s also the priorities of the local organizations that fund many of the city’s nonprofits. Pelton, for his part, points to newer grantmaking outfits such as the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund (which is held at the Boston Foundation) as an example of how the city’s philanthropic community is adapting to meet the needs of the city. Led by 19 Black and brown executives, New Commonwealth has set a goal of raising $100 million to support nonprofits led by people of color and has support from some of the city’s biggest companies, including Bain Capital, Fidelity, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and State Street. The organization has already raised $30 million toward its goal and has given out more than $2 million in community grants. “There are spaces being created for more experimentation and more blending of models of investment,” says Makeeba McCreary, who was named president of the New Commonwealth Fund in 2021. “There are more conversations about leveling the playing field for people of color who have historically been left out.”

The Greater Boston Food Bank saw an outpouring of generosity as the pandemic increased food insecurity in the area. / The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Of course, the philanthropists who have traditionally supported Boston’s biggest institutions haven’t completely ridden off into the sunset—at least not yet. There have still been plenty of eye-popping major donations of late from the old guard. Magellan Fund money manager Peter Lynch, 78, donated more than $20 million in paintings, including works by Picasso, to Boston College in 2021. Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, a Grammy-winning, 200-year-old baroque and classical orchestra and chorus, received an anonymous $10 million donation that same year. And 85-year-old Edward Avedisian, a former clarinetist for the Boston Pops who made a fortune in the stock market, recently donated $100 million to Boston University School of Medicine for scholarships, professorships, and research.

Still, even Old Boston is beginning to change the way it gives to fit the times. Perhaps no one embodies the shifting priorities of philanthropy in Massachusetts more than Quincy telecom billionaire Rob Hale. Worth a reported $5 billion, Hale and his wife, Karen, have written tens of millions in checks to Boston Children’s Hospital, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and his alma mater, Connecticut College, over the years. But this year, the couple has instead decided to give $1 million per week to 52 different small, local nonprofits, mostly on Massachusetts’ South Shore. The causes vary, from helping domestic violence victims to supporting cancer patients.

Established local companies have also been changing tack when it comes to charitable giving. Eastern Bank Foundation president and CEO Nancy Huntington Stager says she and Eastern Bank chair and CEO Bob Rivers oversaw a shift toward more community-based giving following the stunning 2015 “Color of Wealth in Boston” study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which found deep disparities in homeownership and net worth between white households and non-white households. Upon learning about its findings, the bank’s foundation began redirecting donations to small businesses and healthcare and education nonprofits in communities of color. “The report affected both Bob and me deeply, as it did our board and employees here at the bank,” Stager says. “Even though Boston is one of the most philanthropic cities in the world by far, that philanthropy goes to colleges and universities, hospitals, and arts and cultural institutions. But it isn’t going into the things where we need to effect change.”

To that end, Eastern Bank has also linked up with several other major corporations and foundations, including Bain Capital, the Boston Foundation, Berkshire Bank, and even the City of Boston, to create the Foundation for Business Equity, which funds growth for Black- and Latino-owned businesses. “I’m seeing that increasingly businesses are not just writing checks, but they’re leaning in more significantly with their own time,” Rivers says, “and that’s exciting.”

Eastern Bank isn’t the only local outfit exploring new beneficiaries for its largesse. The Celtics’ new organization, Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, recently committed $25 million over 10 years to address racial injustice and social inequities. Team co-owner and billionaire, Bain Capital executive Steve Pagliuca, says the Celtics will also soon launch a mobile prenatal-care vehicle in conjunction with Boston Medical Center to provide services for pregnant women in underserved neighborhoods. “I think the city is one of the best in terms of philanthropy,” he says, noting that when it comes to his own charitable contributions, “I’m looking for organizations that will help people get educated, get healthcare, and get equal treatment and opportunity.”

Elsewhere in corporate Boston, though, the giving landscape is a bit murkier. There are concerns that some of the city’s largest and historically most generous companies could be losing their local focus. In 2011, Fidelity downsized in Boston and moved some operations out of state; though its philanthropic arm, Fidelity Charitable, has become one of the nation’s largest nonprofit funders, raising $10.3 billion this year alone, it’s unclear how much of that is funneling back into Boston. There are even more questions swirling about Bank of America’s commitment to the city: Brian Moynihan, the bank’s Massachusetts-based CEO, has long resisted pressure from the board to move to New York City or Charlotte, North Carolina, where the global bank is headquartered. Still, his tenure won’t last forever, and any new CEO is almost certain to be based elsewhere and not have the same affection for the region. And John Hancock, owned by a Toronto conglomerate since 2004, recently withdrew its support of the Boston Marathon after nearly 40 years; next April will be its last year as the principal sponsor.

Which company logo will be emblazoned on the finish-line banner in 2024? The answer remains unknown.

So where, exactly, does that leave Boston’s many nonprofits in the future? Given the amount of wealth in this city, we’ll likely see at least a few socially engaged charitable superstars with their own pot of gold ready to fill in for Cutler, Mugar, Johnson, and the rest of the city’s most generous leaders at some point. But as of right now, their names are not yet known, and their donations have not yet had a seismic impact. Whoever they are, and however they made their money, one thing is clear: The city’s most iconic institutions depend on them stepping up.

We saw very clearly how fragile the city’s arts ecosystem could be when COVID hit; with theaters and museums shut down, many institutions experienced massive layoffs. They’re slowly recovering now, but if wealthy millennials decide to abandon the arts scene bankrolled by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, it could be the cultural equivalent of an asteroid hitting Earth. “Any institution that’s blind to these changes, they’re going to face some challenges certainly,” says Min Hui. Still, she adds, “I think we’re cautiously optimistic. Every organization around town is doing a fair amount of work to cultivate the next generation of philanthropy. That means getting creative. We’re all searching for new ways to do this because the game is changing constantly.”

The city is also stepping in to help. In February, Mayor Michelle Wu awarded more than $3.4 million to 192 arts and cultural organizations (including music, dance, and theater outfits) using municipal funds and funding provided through the American Rescue Plan Act. Federal ARPA money also went directly to several cultural institutions and organizations, including $1 million to the New England Aquarium, $500,000 to the Boston Arts Summer Institute, and $250,000 to First Night Boston.

Despite expanding needs and shifting giving trends, Kevin Phelan, cochair of Colliers International, is among those who are bullish on the city’s next generation of givers. In addition to the attention they are paying to social and economic needs, he expects they will keep Boston’s cultural needs met—so long as they commit to giving local. “The great thing about Boston is that whether it’s a 31-year-old who made his first big-dollar score or an 80-year-old, we’re all in the same tank of trying to be generous,” Phelan says. “The important thing is…that the money stays here.”

Joyce, for her part, agrees. When she thinks back to her conversations with Mayor Menino in his last days, she recalls him being deeply concerned about making sure the city and its residents were taken care of. “You can do philanthropy in any way you feel is most effective, but the institutions of our city that anchor the nonprofit sector still need support,” she says. “I believe that with all the change that is happening, this is a key issue to pay attention to because our cultural and social institutions depend on it.”

After all, the Pops must go on.

The Giving Pros

Four local companies that are making Boston their business. By Elisabeth Hadjis

Cummings Properties

Look at any Boston nonprofit’s sponsor list. Chances are, you’ll find the Cummings Foundation, an organization created in 1986 to support the philanthropic efforts of Cummings Properties, a local commercial real estate firm. Since then, the foundation has become one of the state’s top donors, supporting 150 local projects annually with a $30 million grant. The company has also donated most of its rental profits to charity, amounting to more than $375 million since the foundation was established.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts

Promoting equitable, accessible healthcare for marginalized communities statewide is what matters most to the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation. Through its nine distinct grant programs—which support community and mental health initiatives, research projects, and racial justice action—the foundation has awarded funding to more than 50 organizations in 2022 and has given more than $77 million over the past 20 years.

Eastern Bank

For the Eastern Bank Foundation, philanthropy means going beyond donations and investing in systemic change. To fulfill that responsibility, the foundation provides hundreds of annual grants—totaling more than $5 million a year—to grassroots initiatives throughout New England, from the Animal Rescue League of Boston to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. And with more than $250 million in assets, the organization should have no problem continuing its mission well into the future.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals

When it comes to charitable giving, the Vertex Foundation keeps STEAM education, social change, and health equity at the top of its priority list. After distributing more than $9 million in 2021 alone, this year the organization announced it was committing $50 million to health equity causes over the next five years, including a grant to an organization working on improving clinical trial diversity and another to the Mass General Comprehensive Sickle Cell Disease Treatment Center.

Meet the Organizers

They’re small, passionate, and community-based—and they’re quickly garnering support from the next generation of philanthropists. By Elisabeth Hadjis

Kannan Thiruvengadam

Eastie Farm

When East Boston resident Kannan Thiruvengadam launched Eastie Farm in 2015, he was chasing a big dream. A tech consultant turned community organizer, he hoped to create an outdoor space for the neighborhood, increase food security, and give locals the opportunity to learn about climate resilience. Seven years and one geothermal greenhouse later, the project is thriving under Thiruvengadam’s leadership as executive director. Today, Eastie Farm offers programs from youth workshops to a new community-supported agriculture initiative that will supply 400 East Boston families with affordable produce next year.

FUNDED BY: The Grassroots Fund, the Whole Cities Foundation, and the state of Massachusetts.

Ayana Aubourg

Sisters Unchained

As executive director of Sisters Unchained, an organization she cofounded in 2015, Ayana Aubourg is determined to change the criminal justice system in Massachusetts, starting with the people incarceration leaves behind: the young women and girls separated from their parents behind bars. A child of an incarcerated parent herself, Aubourg has devoted her career to providing support for kids like her, including healing and mental health programs and a new transportation service to help families reconnect with their loved ones in prison.

FUNDED BY: The New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, the Boston Women’s Fund, and the Cambridge Community Foundation.

Michelle Caldeira

Boston Uncornered

After more than 20 years in the nonprofit space, Michelle Caldeira has seen firsthand how the right resources can change someone’s life and help communities reach their full potential. Since cofounding Boston Uncornered in 2016, a project that aims to end urban poverty and gang violence, Caldeira has committed to giving gang-involved individuals the tools they need to eliminate violence in their neighborhoods, including mentorship, support services, and more.

FUNDED BY: The Barr Foundation, the Cummings Foundation, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

First published in the print edition of the December 2022 issue, with the headline “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”