High Net Worth Philanthropists: Family Offices

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High Net Worth Philanthropists: Family Offices

Five philanthropists that have dedicated their resources to research, advocacy, and schools that focus on autism, have done so because autism touched their lives on a personal level. For Dame Stephanie Shirley, Harry and Laura Slatkin, and Ed Scott, it was a child, for Suzanne Wright, it was a grandchild, and for Bernie Marcus, it was the child of a young employee. Bill and Nacy Thompson became involved after hearing about autism from friends who had children with autism. Between them, they have developed and set up some of the leading autism centers, schools, and foundations in the US. Sandbridge Capital and Jefferson River Capital are two family firms that have high net worth clients with autistic children. Sandbridge Capital's client Tommy Hilfiger has made many philanthropic donations to autism-related causes, as have Jefferson River Capital's Billy and Jennifer Frist. The Frist's and Hilfiger have another thing in common. They have children who have autism.


Bernie Marcus

  • Bernie Marcus is one of the co-founders of The Home Depot. His net worth was estimated by Forbes in 2020 to be $6.5 billion. Marcus is one of a new generation of high net worth philanthropists giving their fortunes away over a set time period. He has a self-imposed deadline for giving away his fortune because he believes it enables him to leverage his networks and influence better toward the cause.
  • Marcus started The Home Depot with friends are they were fired from their jobs in the local hardware store.
  • The needs of children with autism and their families are the philanthropic focus of Marcus, who has championed their cause for over two decades. He founded the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta. Marcus also recruited other philanthropists, with interest in autism, to launch the research and advocacy organization, Autism Speaks.
  • While running, The Home Depot Marcus observed the difficulties faced by a young female employee who was the mother of an autistic child. He felt compelled to learn more about autism and visited the countries top medical facilities, meeting countless families suffering the same anguish as his young employee.
  • In Marcus' own words, "Honestly, I didn't sleep for nights, and I said, Goddamn it, I'm going to do something about this. And that's how we came about starting the Marcus Autism Center because of a need that I saw."
  • The Marcus Autism Center enables families to access the latest research, scientifically based treatments, and comprehensive testing. It has grown to be one of five National Institutes of Health (NIH) Autism Centers of Excellence, providing families a comprehensive resource, while sharing its research and training providers globally.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

  • Dame Stephanie Shirley is a UK based philanthropist and successful IT entrepreneur, having arrived in the UK in 1939 as a child refuge. She founded the company now known as Xansa Plc, and was worth $221 million when she was at her peak.
  • Her charitable foundation, the Shirley Foundation, focuses on IT and autism. Dame Shirley's son Giles died when he was 35. Giles had autism. The foundation is one of the top giving foundations in the UK.
  • The Shirley Foundation has given away more than $87 million. Projects that have been made possible because of this money are pioneering in nature, have a strategic impact, and are significant in real money terms. At the current time, the Shirley Foundation is focusing on national strategies for autism.
  • After visiting Highasi High School in Boston, Dame Shirley was moved to start a "beacon" school for autistic children. Priors Court was officially opened in May 2000. Dame Shirley describes Priors Court in her own words, "Bringing up a son with autism made me only too aware of the lack of appropriate provision. When I was inspired to set up the Foundation in 1998, I aimed to address this shortfall and to provide a specialist school which would offer the best education and support for pupils severely affected by their autism. Only a specialist approach would enable them to access their strengths, reach the potential blocked by anxiety and confusion, and so, with support, make the most of their lives and achieve a level of independence. The expertise and dedication of the specialist team at Prior's Court ensures this. I am enormously proud of the achievements of both pupils and school staff and share their hopes and plans for the future."
  • She became a Dame in 2017 when she was awarded the Order of Companions of Honor in the Queen's Birthday Honors.

Harry and Laura Slatkin

  • Soon after the birth of their son David in 1999, he was diagnosed with autism. Laura and Harry Slatkin founded the New York Center for Autism in response, with several colleagues. The Center was founded in 2003.
  • From age 9, David has needed to attend a specialist residential school. Laura describes what this was like, "There is such enormous parental guilt about sending your child away, even when he is going to get the best care possible."
  • Laura and Harry Slatkin are American entrepreneurs. They started the fragrance company Slatkin and Co, which grew to be worth $800 million. They received a commission to create a memorial candle following the death of Princess Diana.
  • The school is a partnership with the New York Board of Education, opening in 2005. It was the first entirely free school for autism in New York. It is located in Harlem and can enroll up to 40 students at any one time. A second school has subsequently opened in the Bronx.
  • Norwegian psychologist Ivar Lovaas was one of the first to use the system adopted by the school. Although the system has resulted in half of the children given intensive therapy at an early stage achieve normal educational functioning and is the standard in Norway, it is not without its critics, who consider it overly strict, harsh, and rigid.
  • The school has partnered with New York universities and hospitals to form the Institute of Brain Development. It helped to create the Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, a consortium of autism organizations.

Ed Scott

  • Ed Scott has been called Silicon Valley's "most effective giver" due to the impact his giving has had on global disease and poverty. After working as a government official, Scott co-founded computer company BEA Systems, which quickly achieved over $1 billion in sales.
  • One of the causes Scott supports is especially close to his heart. Scott's son Reece was born with Autism. The Scott Center for Autism was established in Florida at the Institute of Technology. At the time of Reece's diagnosis, little information was available regarding the treatment of autism. Ed Scott and wife, Cheryl, started the Center because of the difficulties they had getting treatment for Reece.
  • Support from his parents, teachers, and therapists saw Reece overcome many of autism's challenges. He graduated from Georgetown University and has a Master’s Degree in Modern Japanese Studies from the University of Oxford.
  • The Center is a world-class research and treatment facility, serving as a "hub for research on best practices for patients and caregivers."
  • Scott has also funded a chair in psychiatry along with two research fellowships that focused on the causes of autism and treatments. He is also responsible for developing a program at Oxford University for students with severe disabilities.
  • The Scott Center is one of many philanthropic endeavors by Scott, with his Center for Global Development leading the world in research around poverty policy.

Suzanne Wright

  • Autism Speaks was founded by philanthropist Suzanne Wright and husband, Bob. It has grown to become "the largest autism science and advocacy organization" in the US, if not the world, providing a voice for those with autism.
  • She became involved in autism advocacy when her grandson, Christian, was born with autism. Working with fellow philanthropist Bernie Marcus at one stage, she has increased the awareness of autism in the US.
  • Bob Wright was the CEO and Chairman of NBC for many years. He has an estimated net worth between $22 and $66 million, depending on which rumors about his compensation package from NBC are believed.
  • In 2010 Autism Speaks launched what they called a Decade of Autism. The organization campaigned to raise $100 million over the decade for autism advocacy and research.
  • Wright is proud of the work her organization has done saying, "On Dec. 18 [2012], the gavel came down, and there was not one objection for the World Autism Awareness Day Health Resolution. That was a really big factor. When you have the U.N. sanction it, it means a lot. They don’t agree on a lot of stuff, but they certainly agreed on that. To think that this little boy, Christian, my grandson, was changing not only how people look at autism in our country but now in the world."

Bill and Nancy Thompson

  • Bill and Nancy Thompson set up and support the Thompson Foundation for Autism, which aims to make a difference in the lives of those with autism. The organization works in partnership with the University of Missouri.
  • The net worth of the Thompson's is unknown. Unlike many of the other philanthropists who donate to autism causes, the Thompson's do not have a child with autism. They became aware of autism because it had impacted on friends who had children with autism.
  • Their foundation supports research, education, and interventions in autism, and has taken the lead on the national stage in autism-related legislative reform.
  • Those steering the organization include community leaders and successful business people from throughout the US.


Jefferson River Capital

  • Jefferson River Capital is the family office of Billy and Jennifer Frist. They were the backers of Autism Learning Partners, a Californian organization that provides therapy to children with autism. The Frist's philanthropy towards autism began when their son was born with autism.
  • The Frists have an estimated net worth of $13.1 billion, Thomas Frist having founded Hospital Corp of America, after serving as an Airforce Flight Surgeon.
  • They have also donated $10 million to Vanderbilt to support the development of a Center for Autism, which will help those with autism achieve their true potential. The Center will assist those with autism to gain employment in technology and innovation.
  • An investment in a biopharmaceutical company testing an enzyme replacement therapy to treat autism, is another of Jefferson River Capital's investments.

Sandbridge Capital

  • Sandbridge Capital is the family office of fashion designer, Tommy Hilfiger. Hilfiger's daughter and stepson have been diagnosed with autism. Hilfiger has an estimated net worth of $400 million.
  • In 2011, Hilfiger starred in a public service announcement for a leading autism advocacy group.
  • The Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation provides research funding and assists in funding educational initiatives around autism awareness.
  • Hilfiger underwrites funding for the annual San Diego Autism awareness camp. Several of Hilfiger's store openings have been fundraisers for different autism-related organizations.