Gara LaMarche ’76’s Job Is To Give Away $4 Billion
By By Thomas F. Ferguson ’74
By the time most people are 50, they have learned to spend less than they earn. Gara LaMarche ’76 has had to unlearn that rule in his job as CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, a $4 billion global charity that has promised to give away all its money and go out of business in the next eight years or so.
To honor the wishes of Chuck Feeney, founding donor of The Atlantic Philanthropies and subject of the recent book, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, LaMarche has the unusual mandate to spend down all of Atlantic’s $4 billion by 2016 in its four program areas: population health, disadvantaged youth, aging, and social justice and reconciliation.
LaMarche took up his duties at Atlantic in April 2007, after 11 years as director of U.S. Programs for George Soros’ Open Society Institute. He suggests that he was an unusual choice to head one of the country’s major foundations, given his earlier career as a leader at the ACLU, PEN and Human Rights Watch, and the fact that he is a well-known spokesperson on a variety of civil and human rights issues. He even keeps a blog where he speaks out freely on events of the day.
But LaMarche’s commitment to frankness and transparency may have been just what recommended him to Atlantic. For many years, Atlantic was a low-profile foundation that kept its gifts anonymous where possible. More recently, together with its commitment to give away all its money in a short time, Atlantic also has committed to becoming more public about its programs and its giving. So a good part of LaMarche’s first year has been devoted to improving communications and transparency, including writing a column on Atlantic’s programs and plans.
LaMarche’s life work likely had it roots at the College. He arrived at Columbia from St. Bernard’s, a small boys’ high school in Westerly, R.I. His former debate coach, Phillip Ryan, had gone to work for the ACLU, which was looking for a student representative for its Academic Freedom Committee. Ryan suggested LaMarche, and as a College first-year, LaMarche became the youngest member ever to serve on an ACLU policy committee. He quickly became fascinated by the ACLU’s policy development process and “its efforts to develop neutral principles everyone benefits from rather than partisan solutions,” as he describes it. By his senior year, LaMarche was recording secretary for the ACLU’s national board meetings and deeply committed to the organization’s mission.
LaMarche went on to become director of the ACLU in Texas in the ’80s, where he discovered a lasting interest in criminal justice reform. He subsequently was a director at PEN (the world’s oldest human rights organization and oldest international literary organization) and, from 1990–96, associate director of Human Rights Watch. Through his almost 100 articles and numerous speeches and talks, LaMarche also became a spokesperson on a wide variety of civil and human rights issues.
At the College, LaMarche concentrated in political science while trying to keep as much time as possible free for the ACLU and his 25-hour-per-week job in the nursery school at Morningside Gardens. “I favored lecture classes so my absence wouldn’t be noticed,” he says, wryly adding that his lack of attention to the College’s classroom opportunities “doesn’t mean Columbia wouldn’t have been a great place to get an education.”
LaMarche’s College memories include his time as president of the late Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity house on West 114th Street, and playing in a darts league at Felle’s Tavern on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 106th Street with fellow New Englanders Dan Baker ’76, now executive director of stewardship for University Development and Alumni Relations, and Harry Bauld ’77. Despite LaMarche’s professed diffidence in the classroom, he calls the College “a terrific place.” He was an Alumni Representative Committee interviewer for four years in Texas and another five years upon his return to New York, taking a special interest in meeting applicants who, like himself, came from homes where they would be the first to attend college.
LaMarche has taught at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and served as an adjunct professor at the New School University and John Jay College. And just this semester he was a guest lecturer in Havemeyer Hall’s historic Room 309 for Professor Andrew Nathan’s undergraduate course “Introduction to Human Rights.”
Norman Dorsen ’50, Stokes Professor of Law at NYU, was ACLU’s president from 1976–91. He recalls getting to know LaMarche while setting up chairs for an ACLU meeting in 1976. Dorsen immediately was struck with LaMarche’s work ethic and his “sense of optimism that still cheers me up.” As an example of LaMarche’s wit and good humor, Dorsen tells of a dinner he gave for ACLU leaders for which LaMarche prepared a “long, substantive and funny poem about the ACLU and its internal issues, which he read with great panache and to great applause.” Dorsen now refers to LaMarche as the “poet laureate” of the ACLU.
Looking ahead to the next eight or so years at Atlantic, LaMarche, who has two daughters, Una and Zoe, observes that one of the virtues of his new job is the opportunity to follow up on his long-term interests in social justice while “having a license to continue to learn.” He is especially interested in one of Atlantic’s major program areas, aging, and its twin commitment to improve quality of life for seniors and to promote their civic engagement to take advantage of their experience and wisdom.
LaMarche also will have to figure out how to wind down a very large philanthropy. As he notes, “The downside of large support is dependency.” He will seek what he calls “strategic ways to exit Atlantic’s fields of work.”
It should be an interesting experience — as well as a novel way to lose a job.