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Heising-Simons Foundation: Celebrating the Giving Gene

Monday, October 31, 2016

NCG member the Heising-Simons Foundation was featured in Forbes last week, Two Generations Of Givers: How The Simons Family Passed On The Philanthropy Gene. Read the article below to learn more about the Foundation and the families supporting this inspiring generational giving!

For the first time, two generations from the same family appear on FORBES’ list of America’s 50 Top Givers this year, each earning their own spot in the ranking.

Retired hedge fund billionaire James Simons, a member ofThe Forbes 400, and his wife, Marilyn, have been on the list since we launched it in 2013. In 2015, they donated $298 million, primarily for education and research in math and science, making them the tenth-biggest givers of the year (the list only counts money disbursed, not pledged gifts or funds parked in a foundation).

This year his daughter Liz Simons and her husband Mark Heising joined their elders in the Top Givers list. They donated $43 million through their own foundation in 2015, mainly to early childhood education and scientific research. Liz’s siblings also have independent foundations: Her brother Nathaniel runs the Sea Change Foundation, which supports clean energy, and her half-sister, Audrey, founded the Foundation For A Just Society, which promotes the rights of women, girls and LGBT people.

The family patriarch, who retired from his hedge fund firm, Renaissance Technologies, six years ago, is humble about his role in passing on his zeal for philanthropy. “I’m just lucky to have great children,” he says.

L iz says her father did a lot more than that, serving as an example and encouraging his children to engage with societal issues. She remembers going on a trip to Colombia with him when she was 12 years old. It was the first time she had seen extreme poverty. “I talked a lot with my dad about the inequities in the world and how we really need to give back,” she recalls. “My parents inculcated a feeling of warmth and connection in the family, but they also did a wonderful job of helping us see what was going on in the larger world.”

James Simons’ own parents didn’t have the luxury to give back. His mother was a homemaker, and his father, who didn’t attend high school, worked as a film salesman and shoemaker. Simons graduated from MIT and later got a Ph.D. in math at UC Berkeley. He worked as a codebreaker during the Vietnam War but later spoke out against the conflict: “It would make us stronger to find ways to feed those people in our own country that haven’t enough to eat than it would to develop methods to defoliate the farmlands of North Vietnam,” he wrote in a New York Times letter to the editor in 1967.

Simons started giving to charity after the success of his firm, Renaissance Technologies, a quantitative trading pioneer that he founded in 1978. His first major donation went to CARE, a humanitarian group. Over the next couple of decades, he wrote checks to various causes without a specific plan. Finally, in 1994, he launched the James & Marilyn Simons Foundation with his wife, and nearly a decade later they decided to focus primarily on supporting basic science.

“It was something my wife and I felt was important, and there wasn’t much philanthropic giving to basic science at that time,” says Simons, who chairs the foundation. “That was a place we thought we could make a difference.”

In 2004, he led a group of philanthropists in launching Math for America, a nonprofit that supports math and science teachers in New York City public schools. “The whole economy is more and more dependent on quantitative skills, and we’re behind in teaching them,” he says.

The foundation also supports autism research – inspired by the fact that a family member is on the autism spectrum – and an initiative to uncover how life emerged in the universe. Two years ago, it started building an in-house research group to study computational science, which will eventually expand the foundation’s staff from 160 to 400 people. Through the foundation and other charitable vehicles, James and Marilyn Simons have given away $2.1 billion through 2015. FORBES estimates that Simons’ net worth is $16.5 billion.

Despite his fondness for numbers, Simons doesn’t think impact can always be quantified – for example, by the number of papers his academic grantees publish. Rather, he compares supporting good science to the infamous U.S. Supreme Court ruling on pornography: “You know it when you see it.”

Liz was in her early thirties when her dad and stepmother started their foundation. From the get-go, Simons created what he called “carve outs,” giving his older children a few thousand dollars to give as they pleased through the foundation (Liz opted for the Nature Conservancy and educational charities).

In 2003, over Thanksgiving dinner, Simons asked Liz and her brother Nathaniel to get more involved in the foundation and join the board. They demurred. “We already had our own ideas, partly inspired by the giving we’d been doing. It just didn’t fit into what my dad wanted to do, which is cutting-edge science. It’s always difficult to say that to someone, especially because my dad initially really wanted us to embrace what he was doing. But he’s always been really respectful of our independent ideas,” Liz says.

Now Simons thinks it was a great thing that his children went their own way: “As the next few generations take over family foundations, it can deflect from the original goal or cause a lot of family conflict. This way, we each know what we want the foundation to do,” he says.

In 2007, largely with funding from trusts her father had created for her, Liz launched the Heising-Simons Foundation with her husband, the founder of Medley Partners, an investment firm. They decided to focus on early childhood education, physical sciences research and climate change research. “We care about things that have an immediate effect on people’s lives but that can also have an impact down the road,” she says.

Liz’s interest in early childhood education dates back to the five years she spent working as a teacher in inner-city public schools in California. “I started to see that the children who’d had positive early childhood education experiences came to me more prepared. If we help children when they’re young, we have the chance to see a better world,” she says. She adds that she sought her dad’s advice along the way, and she sits on the board of Math for America. Their foundations have also joined forces on some projects, including founding the Simons Observatory, an astronomy facility in the Chilean desert.

Based in Los Altos, Calif., the Heising-Simons Foundation has given away $205 million through 2015. Liz, who chairs the foundation’s board, also volunteers: teaching writing in a juvenile hall, reading stories to young children and working in a high school journalism program.

She seems to have passed on the philanthropy bug to the next generation. Her daughter, Caitlin Heising, who is 26, is on the board of her parents’ foundation and has started building up a human rights program focused on criminal justice.

“The advice I would give is to let your children have some freedom to explore both what they care about and how they can make a difference in the world,” Liz Simons says. “My daughter’s involvement in the foundation is helping me avoid that sense of thinking that we know more than we do.”

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