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Lorry Lokey on giving it all away

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 Lorry Lokey might have been the easiest sell Warren Buffett had over the past couple of months as he tried to enlist some of the world’s wealthiest citizens in the Giving Pledge challenge that he and Bill Gates issued earlier this year.

Buffett and Gates have asked that their peers make the pledge now to give away more than half of their money by the time they die. When they made the list of the initial 40 signatories public on Wednesday, Lokey might not have been the biggest name, and he might not have the biggest checkbook, but he seemingly represents exactly the kind of giver Gates and Buffet want the world’s super-wealthy class to become.

Lokey, 83, pretty much had already pledged everything he has – somewhere in the range of $700 million – to a handful of charitable causes. He had sold his company, Businesswire, to Buffet in 2008, so the two were already quite familiar with each other.

“A few weeks ago, Warren called to ask if I would be interested in making this pledge,” Lokey told The Fundermentalist on Thursday. “I told him that I had already pledged and given away everything. He said, ‘Yes, that is why I want you on board.’”

When he dies, Lokey has said he wants to be broke or close to it. He took care of his children long ago and has already bequeathed a sum of money to his partner of the last 19 years.

Lokey says that he was raised to give money away. Even during the Depression, when his parents made $2,200 per year, they gave away 10 percent of their money, an example he followed his entire adult life. 

“I was always brought up to share charitable gifts. My folks did it when they couldn’t afford it. I learned from that,” he said. “I have always given. Once I got established after school, I was giving pretty close to 10 percent per year.” 

And as he became wealthy, that percentage increased. “When I gave it away back then it hurt. I felt it,” he said. “I don’t feel it now because I have it. But I have developed a tremendous respect for the middle class group of people who scrape together a few thousand dollars a year to give away.”

A journalist by training who moved to public relations and then started his own business, Lokey has given most of his money away to education because, as he says, without the education he received growing up and without his education at Stanford University, this son of middle-class Jews would have not gotten anywhere. Among his largest gifts: $134 million to the University of Oregon, where he grew up, $35 million to Mills College, $37 million to Santa Clara University, and $33 million to the Technion Institute in Haifa.

And while he has given by his estimate some $80 million to Catholic schools, his giving to Israeli education is off the charts. Aside from Technion, he has boosted the Leo Baeck High School in Haifa, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Weizmann Institute and Hadassah. 

More is coming.

Lokey says that he wants to make another $300 million or so off of his investments by the time he dies (he says he will make 90 easy, as his mother died at 99 and his grandmother at 100), and the next big gifts will be to Israeli education.

“I hope to make it a billion before I kick the bucket,” he said. “The next $60 million or so will go to Israel.”

Lokey, who says he is a product of Reform Hebrew school, fell in love with Israel on his first trip there in 1958, before he was really wealthy, on a mission with Hadassah.

He’s been back eight more times, and now that he is retired he hopes to make an annual trip there. 

“Haifa I loved because it reminds me of San Francisco,” Lokey said from his home in Atherton, Calif. The house is one of three luxuries he says he allows himself, along with a San Francisco apartment and a home on Pineapple Hill in Maui.

Everything else he has given away or pledged to give away. Lokey says he has about a dozen charities to which he gives mega gifts, and another 10 to 20 to which he will give rather large gifts, but, “I do not spread it out; I am not going to be one to give to 100 to 200 different areas.”

It might be tough luck for local Jewish charities, but Lokey says that is just the way his dollar rolls. He is focused on education because “education is a matter of survival,” he says.

“I don’t give to the United Jewish Appeal, and I don’t give to United Crusade either or the Salvation Army or the Red Cross either,” he said. “I give where I can pour dollars in in a big way and make things happen.”

Looking at the list of those who have taken the Gates-Buffett challenge, Lokey says he feels pride that more than a quarter of the first 40 is Jewish.

“It is significant that 25 percent of the list we know to be Jewish, and we only account for 5 percent of the population. I kind of wonder what is wrong with the rest of the people,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be anything but Jewish. If I come back in another life, I want to be Jewish.”

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