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Let’s Check In On Two of Houston’s Most Fascinating Philanthropists, Shall We?

If any couple puts their money where their beliefs are, it's Houston's Laura and John Arnold. After John Arnold retired in 2007 as America’s youngest billionaire, they formed their foundation with an absolute commitment to funding rigorous research into social programs. Laura Arnold gave a famous TED Talk in 2017 titled “The Four Most Dangerous Words? A New Study Shows..” In that speech she told a Washington audience:

“I think personal stories are so important; they are what fuel our passion. For many of us, they’re the reason why we do the work we do. But I believe that they’re precisely the wrong place to look for insight. In fact, I believe that we – as policymakers, government officials, philanthropists, even as individuals – spend entirely too much time on anecdote and not enough time on evidence.”

The idea of avoiding anecdotes and not trying to appeal to emotion horrifies many in the nonprofit world, but the Arnolds have continued to march to their own beat. In 2019, they announced they were converting their private nonprofit foundation to a private LLC, Arnold Ventures, a move that allows them to lobby and fund advocacy without running afoul of the 501(C)(3) rules. Critics point out it also allows them to avoid a lot of the public scrutiny that nonprofits face.

So what have they been up to lately? Well, a little over a year ago, they started the Initiative to Accelerate Charitable Giving, a coalition effort to shake loose the $1.1 trillion dollars sitting on the books of foundations and donor advised funds that could be going to support nonprofit missions. They followed that up in April by becoming the first billionaires to sign onto the “Give While You Live” campaign, committing to give 5% of their wealth every year to an important cause. The campaign came out of the Davos World Economic Forum and hopes the world’s other 2,000-plus billionaires will also commit.

In the meantime, the newly recast Arnold Ventures is growing as an advocacy powerhouse, managing a portfolio of nearly 550 active grantees and tackling 10 highly challenging issues, ranging from problems with equity and the criminal justice system to our tangled healthcare policies.

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