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11.28.07

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Giving Back

Richard Goldman and the importance of right-thinking philanthropy

By Gianna de Persiis Vona


As a young girl, I used to imagine that if I were ever rich, I would buy my mom new clothes and myself a tennis racket. By middle school, I wanted to buy her dirt fill for the retaining wall that was going to keep our house from sliding down the mountain, and some designer jeans for myself so that I wouldn't be such a reject at school. By high school, I had pretty much given the fantasy up. The rich were rich and I was not, never had been, never would be.

Naturally, this was also around the time that I began to foster cynicism. Politicians are not to be trusted; movie stars spend too much on their lavish lifestyles to deserve any respect; and the people in the position to facilitate global change care more about their bottomless coffers than they do about rising cancer rates, sweatshop labor, contaminated rivers and oceans and our starving school systems.

Hooray for Richard N. Goldman.

A San Francisco philanthropist with whom I recently spoke via a convoluted combination of cell and speaker phones, Mr. Goldman—a man about whom it seems disrespectful to address with just a surname—managed during our brief chat to crack my cynicism right open like a stubborn coconut.

Mr. Goldman is the recipient of 36 different prestigious awards and honors, and though I am no fan of the Boy Scouts due to their refusal to accept homosexual scout leaders, I can't help but be impressed by a man who, in his late 80s, can earn himself a Distinguished Eagle Scout award.

Mr. Goldman tells me that he and his late wife, Rhoda Goldman, became concerned after WW II with what they correctly perceived to be a drastic rise in the world's population, a change that they felt would eventually begin to choke the earth. As a proactive measure, they founded the Goldman Fund in 1951; since its inception, the fund has distributed over $550 million, with more than $175 million donated to Bay Area projects. Believers in open space, protecting the environment and climate and population control, the Goldmans were pioneers in their support of the environmental movement.

Mr. Goldman donates to a host of agencies and projects so diverse that it would be impossible to list them all here. What is striking, and perhaps most impressively clear about the list, however, is that there is a balance. The Goldman Fund operates as a mini ecosystem of support for the planet by funding projects that reduce the impact of industry, protect and restore the environment, provide safe living environments and clean water, stabilize global population growth, protect reproductive rights and provide sexuality education across the globe. All the while, Mr. Goldman has not forgotten the importance of thinking globally but acting locally, and this focus has helped to enrich Bay Area open space, support area arts and provide a helping hand to a host of groups working to educate and assist those most in need.

He tells me that 18 years ago, while reading in the newspaper about a Nobel Prize winner, he and his wife came to the mutual realization that there was no comparable award to recognize the visionaries of the environmental movement. Since the inception of the Goldman Environmental Prize, which remains the world's largest award honoring grassroots environmentalist, 119 people in some 70 countries have been awarded $125,000 each for their efforts to save the planet. The award is given once a year to an activist from each continent.

After speaking with Mr. Goldman, I visited the Goldman Environmental Prize website and viewed some of the short videos that tell the stories of past recipients. The winners are not fresh from high-end universities or directors of large organizations; rather, they are small-town people who have managed to commit awe-inspiring acts of bravery in order to protect their communities and the world.

When I was a young, I did have one consistent wish to go along with my illusionary riches. I wanted to purchase a magical power that would enable me to project music from above, sort of like God. I felt convinced that if I could do this, I would be able to stop violence around the world, literally freeze the armies in their tracks, and fill their hearts, at least momentarily, with love.

Ever since watching the video of one of the Goldman Environmental Prize winners—a Mongolian herder who managed to educate himself and then organize in such a way that he changed the mining practices within his country, literally saving the rivers from death—I've been pondering my long-ago wish. Perhaps the world is fortunate that it is Mr. Goldman, and not I, who has riches to share, because clearly, he understands what needs to be done with them.

For more information on the Goldman Environmental Prize, go to www.goldmanprize.org.


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