Making Big Money, Giving It Away

Since 2008, philanthropist Adrienne Arsht has donated $56 million to nonprofit organizations from Miami to Manhattan. She explains that giving is not about showing off, but it's a core responsibility, and big differences can result from small donations. Arsht is profiled in the latest Washington Post Magazine. She speaks with Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. Today, the story of a Washington power player.

Now, everybody knows that Washington is a place where people understand how to get and use power, and people understand the kind of power that comes with having a seat in Congress or having an office close to the West Wing. But now we want to tell you about another kind of power, one that comes from giving. She's known for the checks she writes to various causes. Since 2008, philanthropist Adrienne Arsht has donated some $56 million to nonprofit organizations from Miami to Manhattan, and that has made her a force to be reckoned with.

She's the subject of a profile in this week's Washington Post Magazine, and she's with us now. Adrienne Arsht, thank you so much for joining us.

ADRIENNE ARSHT: I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: Now you grew up kind of well-off, as the article describes. I mean, by the time they died, your parents, who were both professionals, were in a position to donate several millions of dollars to causes they believed in, education and medical issues and so forth. I was just wondering what message you grew up with around giving.

ARSHT: Well, I don't think that I grew up in a sense of great economic situation, but by the time my parents died, they have accumulated funds. But it was not something in my growing up that was relevant. And I think, though, that from the time I was a child, what one did in the community was service. I mean, my mother ended up being the chairman of the Visiting Nurse Association. She was chairman of what was then called the Red Feather, which is what we call the United Way today, or my father on the board of the Child Guidance Center.

MARTIN: I do want to mention that they're both children of immigrants. They both went to law school, worked their way through. Any wealth that they acquired was from earnings, something that they earned throughout the course of their living. Do you have any sense of what motivated them to give?

ARSHT: I'm almost inclined to think of it as sort of a genetic, or sort of DNA. I think giving and helping others is the reason you exist, and I'm not sure where that comes from. Some people may consider it religion. Others may just have read and come to that conclusion. I would say that giving is one of the most joyful things you could ever do. So if we are motivated by pleasure, I certainly would say that giving gives you a great deal of pleasure.

MARTIN: Do you have a metric or some particular benchmark that you use when you're trying to decide how or when you want to make a gift?

ARSHT: I think that the point would be a game-changer, as opposed to a participant in an ongoing campaign. It was something that perhaps would not happen without that gift.

MARTIN: The article makes the point that - there are some really, really funny comments from you in the article. One of the points that you make is that when powerful men or men of means give, they're called philanthropists. When women give money, they're called socialites. What's up with that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARSHT: I'm not sure I said men give and they are called - but when men attend social functions, they are considered doing it for business reasons. They are there to network. They are there to put the brand of their company out there as having supported something.

When I did it in Miami, and I had the bank TotalBank, and it was no different than a bank that was owned by a man, but I was not considered out there doing business. I had a community bank. It was the role of the bank to participate in the community. And wherever I was, I was the business. But people seem to want to think about it as more a plaything than a business.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm visiting with Adrienne Arsht. She is a Washington, DC philanthropist. She's the subject of a cover story in the latest Washington Post Magazine.

The article makes the point that, in part, one of the reasons that you give and give publicly is that you want to set an example so women know it's okay to give. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

ARSHT: Women are much more inclined to protect whatever money they have. And that's a good thing to protect for their home and the children, but they're less likely to give it, because they have a great fear of being a bag lady. And so what I'm hoping to show is it's okay to give. And, yes, I'm still afraid of being a bag lady, but I'm going to do it, anyway.

MARTIN: Have you ever made a mistake in giving? Did you ever give to something and say, oh, wow, I really shouldn't have done that.

ARSHT: Oh, sure. But in the end, it's so insignificant. I mean, a mistake is just - oh, well, maybe I could have done it a little differently, but the money was not used in a fraudulent or a bad way. It just may not have been quite what I thought when I was - came up with the gift, but there's no bad gift.

MARTIN: There are people who belong to religious traditions that suggest that all gifts should be anonymous. But I think that there are other people, even apart from perhaps that religious teaching, who don't want to be seen as showing off. If somebody felt that way, what would you say?

ARSHT: Well, I don't think giving is showing off. I think giving is a core responsibility and that what you do when you give both sets an example and it defines things that are of value to you. And there's the phrase put your money where your mouth is. What you believe in, I think, is worth standing for, and it can be 25 cents. When you're somewhere and you want to leave a tip for good service and you calculate it, and let's say it's 75 cents, and you have a dollar bill. You can leave a dollar. That's a 25 cent gift. It doesn't have to be lots and lots of zeroes. It's a thought about aiding something or someone that you believe in.

And when you think about pennies thrown into a fountain, I'm on the board of Lincoln Center and there are three fountains in the entire complex. And people throw in coins, and we collect them every two weeks. And thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars are collected for Lincoln Center one nickel, one penny, one quarter at a time. It makes a difference. And for the person who threw in that one penny, that was generous.

MARTIN: Adrienne Arsht is a philanthropist here in Washington, DC. She is profiled in the latest Washington Post magazine. The piece is titled, "Making a Name for Herself." Adrienne Arsht, thank you so much for joining us.

ARSHT: It's been my pleasure.

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