Philadelphia's Lenfests receive Carnegie Medal for their extraordinary philanthropy

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Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest (center, with medals) at the Carnegie Medal for Philanthropy luncheon at the New York Public Library.

NEW YORK — As patrons and major supporters of the arts in Philadelphia, Marguerite and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest are used to giving ovations. Tuesday afternoon they received one at a tony luncheon at the New York Public Library as they and seven other recipients accepted the 2017 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.

The national honor is awarded every two years to philanthropists who have made a significant impact. Past recipients include Brooke Astor, the Rockefeller and Gates families, and Michael Bloomberg, along with Philadelphia’s Annenberg, Pew, and Haas families. This year’s honorees include Jeffrey Skoll, of eBay fame.

In the last dozen and a half years, the Lenfests have distributed more than $1.2 billion to arts and culture, education, social services, and other charitable causes. Major recipients include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of the American Revolution, and the Curtis Institute of Music. Most recently, Gerry Lenfest has acquired, donated, and endowed the media company that publishes the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.

Read more about the Lenfests’ philanthropy in Philly 

Though gracious while speaking both from the stage at the awards ceremony and at the luncheon table, Lenfest quietly admitted that he doesn’t love the spotlight.

“It’s difficult for us,” he said. “Marguerite and I, we don’t really like being recognized. We don’t go out of our way to be recognized.”

One thing he did love was being heralded by bagpipes when the honorees arrived at the luncheon room, in a nod to the Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie. “It stirs my soul,” said Lenfest. “It’s part of my Scotch Irish background.”

The event was held in the Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library, a space that resembles a Victorian-era palm court with soaring arches and a domed ceiling. Diners numbered around 300, and the post-lunch entertainment was none other than the star cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his cross-cultural Silk Road Ensemble.

Camera icon ANDREW RENNEISEN
A crowd of about 300 attended the Carnegie ceremonies at the New York Public Library.

Skoll was unable to attend, but all the other recipients were there, including Sir James D. Wolfensohn, a major force behind Carnegie Hall, and Julian Robertson, the former “Wall Street Wizard” who now works to break the cycle of urban poverty. He called the occasion “Thanksgiving Day without the turkey.” Carnegie Medals were also awarded to philanthropists Mei Hing Chak, Azim Premji, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, and Shelby White.

“This room was filled with marvelous people, all seeming to create momentum in a similar direction — and hard-wired to help,” said Kenneth Miller, Andrew Carnegie’s great-grandson.

Several common threads emerged — starting with expressions of support and compassion for recent disasters in Las Vegas and Puerto Rico. Many recipients quoted Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 The Gospel of Wealth, whose starting point is that philanthropy is the obligation of the wealthy.

Several said that giving away money isn’t nearly as easy as it seems. When Gerry Lenfest sold his cable company in 2000, he and his wife suddenly became billionaires, and studied up on the principles of philanthropy. Said Marguerite in a video shown at the luncheon, “We’re basically hands on, and we participate in what we give to.”

Gerry Lenfest said author Waldemar A. Nielsen was also his guide, from whom he took three tenets. The first: “Don’t create the foundation in perpetuity. What’s important at the time can be unimportant later in life.”

Second, he said, “was to have professional manager of your foundation.”

“The third … is never have a family foundation. What brings a family together so often sets it apart. We have three children. Each has their own foundation. I don’t sit on the board, and they all do fantastic work.”