Impulse 65: Board Notes

Board notes
Mark Laskow

‘Carnegie World’ united under leadership of late Carnegie Corporation President

Vartan Gregorian is no longer with us. For a quarter of a century he has been the energetic center of the world of philanthropy created by Andrew Carnegie.

The power of his leadership flowed not just from his presidency of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but also from the strength of his intellect and the warmth of his personality. His death is a great loss to the Hero Fund, to the collected Carnegie organizations, and to American intellectual life. It was also a personal loss to those at the Hero Fund who worked with him over the years.

As President of Carnegie Corp. from 1997, Gregorian transformed the relationships among the 20-some organizations endowed by Andrew Carnegie that continue to operate today. I refer to them as “Carnegie World.”

Gregorian had no official role in any of the other organizations in Carnegie World, but he had a very persuasive personality and the largest endowment in the group. When he invited Carnegie World to gather in New York in 2001 to establish the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, they came!

Gregorian thus launched the incredibly successful Medal of Philanthropy — the Nobel Prize of philanthropy — and at the same time created the practice of biennial meetings of Carnegie World.

Before Gregorian, we had never done this on any regular basis. There were certainly bilateral relationships: I have read historical accounts that suggest Carnegie Corp. and the Carnegie Institution for Science cooperated closely. The Carnegie Hero funds in North America and the UK had been in regular communication, and both organizations attempted to contact and establish some communication with the Hero Funds in continental Europe. But the biennial gatherings for the Medal of Philanthropy changed everything.

The participating organizations exchanged information and, even more important, built enduring links among the leaders involved. In addition, the allure of the Medal of Philanthropy ceremonies drew in European Hero Funds who had not previously been in close touch.

Among the Hero Funds, these changes had substantial benefits, much beyond making new friends. The health of the continental European Funds varies, and all have benefitted from the encouragement and exchange of ideas at our meetings.

Gregorian took that a step further and oversaw several grants to the North American Hero Fund which we have used to support the European Funds. We allocate these funds in consultation with the UK Hero Fund. On the whole, Gregorian did much to ensure the health and survival of the Hero Funds in continental Europe.

Beyond these organization initiatives, Gregorian was personally kind and welcoming to the leadership of our Hero Fund. He recognized and deeply respected Walter Rutkowski’s knowledge of all things Carnegie. (Walter was chief executive of the Hero Fund from 1995 to 2017.) He was also quick to recognize the leadership abilities of Walter’s successor, Eric Zahren. Gregorian embraced Eric and warmly welcomed him to Carnegie World.

He was also most kind to me, involving me in projects which broadened my knowledge of Carnegie World and made me a little more fit for my Hero Fund role. The point isn’t so much that he was helpful to me, but rather how typical this was of him, something that he did easily and willingly for others.

Lastly, Vartan Gregorian was a wonderfully warm and interesting man. He was born and raised an Armenian in the largely Azerbaijani city of Tabriz. There’s a mix for you! His grandfather owned a caravansary, a sort of rest stop for camel caravans. He himself attended an Armenian elementary school, then a Russian one after the Soviets occupied northern Iran during World War II. He arrived in the United States in 1956 with those two languages plus Persian, but no English. Combine that personal history with his grace and warmth, and you would want to talk to him for hours. He was Provost at Penn, rescued the New York Public Library, served as President of Brown and then led Carnegie Corp. from 1997. Along the way he always championed the interests of the Armenian people.

While our hours with Vartan Gregorian have ended and there will be no more, for the people he touched, the imprint of this wonderful man will remain for the rest of their own hours.