Michael Leven knows the value of having a plan and pursuing it with great discipline. It’s an approach that, over a 50-plus-year career, helped him become an icon in the hotel industry and one of franchising’s most innovative leaders. Now retired, Mike has continued to build on his equally impressive philanthropic legacy.
As Mike discusses in the following interview, having a plan to guide one’s philanthropic work, and the discipline to stick to that plan, is essential. “Grantmaking is a business, and to do it well you need to have a process.” He continues, “Had I known all this starting out, I would have been more efficient and made fewer mistakes.”
In 2010, Mike and his wife launched the Michael and Andrea Leven Family Foundation, focusing on three funding areas: Free Enterprise, Jewish Continuity, and Oil Independence. Today, Mike also serves as a board member for the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, the Birthright Israel Foundation, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization. In addition, Mike is a member of the Georgia Aquarium Board of Directors, an institution where he previously served as chief executive officer.
Thank you, Mike, for finding the time to discuss the business of giving.
What cause or issue is most important to you and why?
The free enterprise system, because that is what’s best for creating opportunities and personal freedom.
What inspired you to launch a private foundation?
When it comes to giving away money, the danger for most people—particularly those with significant wealth—is that they too often give without a guiding plan. This kind of “checkbook giving” provides instant gratification for donors, but it is unfocused and rarely moves the needle for a specific issue. I thought a private foundation would be the most effective vehicle for giving away money to the causes in which I believe because it brings discipline to my behavior and my giving. With a foundation, I have plan in place, and I can track how I’m doing against that plan. Furthermore, by partnering with Foundation Source to administer and help maintain the foundation, I don’t have to deal with the “back of the house stuff.”
What do you know now about being a grantmaker that you wish you knew starting out?
Much of what I know today about grantmaking was acquired over the ten-year period when I served as a trustee for The Marcus Foundation. There, I learned that grantmaking is a business, and to do it well you need to have a process. Over time, I cultivated a process that works for me: Give only a few large grants each year intended to make a real difference, and give small gifts to charities out of my personal checkbook, not from the foundation. Had I known all of this starting out, I would have been more efficient and made fewer mistakes.
What is the most significant challenge you face in running a private foundation?
There are simply too many causes to address and too many people who need help. When you have a private foundation, people will inevitably ask you for money, and it can be difficult saying “no.” Ironically, having a foundation with clearly defined giving guidelines is the most straightforward reason for turning down off-target grant requests. As I said before, a foundation keeps me disciplined. When something falls outside the mission of my foundation, I will give from my personal checkbook.
What do you get from giving?
A sense of great satisfaction that I am giving back to society and the causes in which I believe.
Name one philanthropist, present or past, whom you would like to have coffee with, and why?
Bill Gates. I can’t figure out how he makes decisions and how he can be efficient with all those employees.
What is a burning question that you have for your community of philanthropic peers?
How do you stay focused so that all your philanthropic work has an impact?
Name one individual or organization that has particularly impressed you. Why?
The John William Pope Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina, advocating for “free markets, limited government, individual responsibility, and government transparency.” This is an extremely focused and efficient organization. Through every interaction I’ve had with them, I’ve seen a clear alignment between their activities and their mission.
Name one individual or organization that has particularly impressed you?
I want to make a difference. Specifically, I want to see and understand how my annual foundation grants led to positive outcomes in the world. Said another way, I want to know that there was a return on my philanthropic investment.
What question do you wish we had asked, and how would you answer it?
Question: “What drove you to be charitable?”
Answer: The Rabbi and philosopher Maimonides said to take care of your family first, your fellow Jews second, and all of society third. I believe and adhere to this principle firmly.