Progressive Corp. chairman Peter B. Lewis’s public battle with Case Western Reserve University ended last month. The billionaire philanthropist’s dispute over the management of the $36 million he donated for the Weatherhead School of Business building that bears his name had resulted in a moratorium which lasted for more than a year.
The spending freeze may be over, but Lewis’s philanthropic philosophy has not changed.
“I have to give large amounts of money,” Lewis told the City Club of Cleveland. “I don’t have any facility for evaluating smaller amounts.”
Lewis does all of his charitable giving by himself. He has no board, no committee and no staff to evaluate proposals, and he gets a lot of them. As a result, his contributions are based on a very personal set of criteria, which includes strict accountability for every organization he helps.
With every request, Lewis asks himself questions based on his personal beliefs, such as, “Will my gift enhance the health and happiness and the prospects of the recipients?” “(Is the organization) honest and open?” “Will they foster collaboration?” “Are they interested in departing from the tradition, from the norm?” “Are they creative?” “Are they trying new things?” “Are they challenging?” “Are they eager actually to accomplish?”
Another question Lewis asks is, “Will I feel good about the gift? ”
“Having fun in philanthropy is one of my important criteria,” he says. “I think I’m entitled. Everybody who gives money away is entitled to enjoy it. It shouldn’t be a pain, and it shouldn’t be agonizing, and shouldn’t be unpleasant — although it often has the potential to be all those things.”
Lewis demands detailed plans and feedback for all of his donations.
“Philanthropists shouldn’t just be writing checks,” he says. “I don’t think people can be trustees of any philanthropic institution unless they’re prepared to understand the numbers, understand the policy and understand the performance, and do something about it when they don’t agree with it.”
The amount Lewis donates to organizations varies, but he mostly bases it on ” … my passion for that particular effort, its likelihood of success and the likelihood that the organization will use the money as they said they would. You can easily ruin a good organization by giving it too much money.”