What I Learned From ‘Ace,’ A Philanthropic Giant


In the foreword to Alan “Ace” Greenberg’s book “Memos From The Chairman,” Warren Buffet wrote:  “Ace Greenberg does almost everything better than I do — bridge, magic tricks, dog training, arbitrage — all the important things in life.”  

I would add philanthropy to this list of Ace’s skills. He cared deeply about philanthropy. It was one of his passions — and he wasn’t shy about it. In fact, Ace was a legend of equally stellar accomplishment on Wall Street and in philanthropy: two worlds — the one of acquiring wealth and the one of dispensing it for the betterment of mankind. Ace was the best in giving and getting others to give.

I knew Ace for 30 years and was honored and privileged to work closely with him when I served as executive director of the New York UJA-Federation’s Capital Campaign. Ace served as Honorary Chair, and an active one at that. He was a singular mentor and teacher and had a significant impact on me both professionally and personally. He walked the walk, leading by example. He knew he had a special responsibility to set the standard of giving.

To demonstrate the significant value Ace placed on giving to the best of your ability, there was a major gift solicitation that took place where he and the now late Larry Tisch (the other honorary chair and another great leader during that era) met with a very wealthy corporate leader and they asked this individual for a seven figure gift, which they felt he could well afford. The conversation was a difficult one, compounded by the fact that Ace and the prospective donor were friends. But that did not deter Ace. He implied to this person that their friendship would be at risk if the prospect chose not to participate, since both Ace and Larry viewed philanthropy as an essential responsibility for the community and at such a high level. Though they left without a commitment in hand, the next morning I received a call from this person with the news of a new major gift. Imagine if all nonprofit organizations had such enthusiastic and strong leaders like Ace and Larry to go on the road for the cause.

We had many experiences making face-to-face calls with business and corporate leaders. To watch him in action was a lesson on so many levels. He operated with great humility. Interestingly, he would be hesitant to make the appointment call if he did not personally know the prospect. I would gently respond that it does not matter a bit since that person “knows of you and would be honored that you called for a meeting about philanthropy.” When these meetings took place, they were short and sweet.  There was no wasting of time with Ace. These sessions usually lasted no longer than 20 minutes (including breakfast) and our batting average was 1.000!

Ace’s success in “closing the deal” on philanthropic gifts, and especially those to the numerous Jewish organizations he supported and to Israel, came because he took such enormous pride in being an American Jew. It was also his conviction that because America was so good to him, he in turn should do good.

In fact, within Bear Stearns, where he served as CEO during those years, Ace developed a corporate culture of philanthropy and all managing partners were required to give at least 4 percent of their income to charity. To the best of my knowledge no other company, then or now, ever established any minimum standard of giving for their partners. That speaks volumes about Ace’s core value about the importance of philanthropy and setting the example for his colleagues. I never asked him but rest assured his own giving percentage was a multiplier of the 4 percent standard.

What did I learn by working closely with this giant of a man? One lesson was to return your own phone calls promptly. I was a professional development officer and often people would not return calls or there would be delayed responses. Not with Ace. He treated me the same way he would treat his most important personal clients at the firm. He also taught me to always try to be brief and to the point. I am still working on this and hopefully Ace will not be upset with me since this piece went on too long. And, he also taught me about savings and efficiencies. I do save paper clips, close the lights when I leave the office, park at cheap garages and consequently walk longer distances to my meetings. And I attempt to be a role model for colleagues as Ace was for me and those fortunate to have known him over the years.

There are so many additional qualities and stories about Ace that could be addressed in any recollection about him, such as his business ethics, counsel to CEO’s of business and nonprofits, modesty, gentleman qualities, anonymous giving to individuals in need, help to students, card calling for raising funds, sense of humor, support of medical research, and always being a mensch. But he would disapprove because I still did not learn to keep it short and simple. We will miss him dearly.

Daniel T. Forman is senior philanthropic adviser and former vice president of institutional advancement at Yeshiva University.