The Biggest Philanthropist You’ve Never Heard Of

Adrienne Arsht learned to give while growing up in Wilmington. She may call a triumvirate of large Eastern cities her home now—if the relentless traveler can be said to have a home at all—but she can never leave Delaware behind.

Every year, thousands of Delaware residents have Adrienne Arsht to thank for funding their school services, work programs and local research initiatives, to the tune of millions of dollars.

In Miami, her name adorns everything from metro stops to trash cans at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. She serves as treasurer of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She sits on the board of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She is one of the nation’s top 50 philanthropic donors. She even has her own orchid.

But in her hometown, she flies under the radar. And that’s just fine with her.

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“I don’t think of myself as someone who has done anything that worthy. I don’t think I’ve done anything extraordinary,” says Arsht, 68. “I’m just a girl from Delaware, and that’s how I was raised.”

Arsht grew up in Wilmington, and she returns often. But mostly it’s Miami she calls home. Or sometimes Washington. Or New York. At one point last spring, she had four suitcases packed, each for a different trip.

She started with three days in Miami before going to Boston, where she sits on the board of the John F. Kennedy library, then back to Miami for an interview. Then she was off to New York to meet with the board of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and with fellow philanthropist Daisy Soros. Then, eventually, to Berlin, where the suitcase was waiting for her in her hotel for an evening at a Wynton Marsalis concert.

“I don’t really have a permanent anything,” says Arsht, speaking from Washington. “I’ll come back for a day or two, but then I’m traveling all over the place.”

It’s a typical schedule for Arsht. From the arts to the boards—eight major ones—she prefers to be going, going, going. That’s the way it’s always been.

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“She’s just very outgoing,” says former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “She loves having strangers meet each other. She’s better at it than anyone else I’ve ever known.”

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Adrienne Arsht chats with President Obama during a breakfast held at her home.Arsht and O’Connor met in Washington in 1981 when Arsht was married to Myer “Mike” Feldman, former counsel to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Twenty-eight years her senior, he died in 2007.

O’Connor says that though Arsht would throw great parties full of interesting people, her favorite gatherings were those when Arsht would invite a group of women over on a Saturday to have dinner and spend the night. “She’d have bathrobes for everyone to put on, and we’d sit around and talk until the wee hours,” O’Connor says.

The art of socializing began early. Arsht grew up celebrating birthdays at the Hotel du Pont. (Her father’s office was on the third floor.) She remembers everyone singing and clapping and walking through the Green Room.

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She stays there when she comes back to visit. She walks through the same ballroom, checks out the Caesar Rodney statue in Rodney Square, and strolls the gardens of Nemours in Rockland.

She counts her parents as her biggest influences. Both S. Samuel Arsht and Roxana Cannon Arsht were lawyers—her mother the fifth woman to pass the Delaware bar and the first female judge in the state. Twenty-five years later, after attending Mount Holyoke College and Villanova Law School, Adrienne would become only the 11th woman to be accepted to the Delaware bar.

Adrienne inherited more than a love for the law from her parents. Samuel and Roxana were devoted to Delaware, donating $2 million to develop the Academy of Lifelong Learning on the University of Delaware’s Wilmington campus, where Arsht Hall stands as a reminder of their gift. They also gave generously to Tower Hill School and Winterthur Museum.

After Roxana passed, the Arsht-Cannon Fund was created in 2002 through the Delaware Community Foundation, which is aimed at supporting Delaware programs through research partnerships and funding. Under Adrienne’s direction, the fund last May gave $300,000 to start the Nemours BrightStart! Dyslexia Initiative in Delaware, an early education and screening program. It also helped fund the first Restorative Justice conference in Delaware, where experts and community leaders discussed how to work together to help victims of violent crimes move forward.

Over the past six years, the Arsht-Cannon Fund has given $4.5 million to non-profit agencies in Delaware, $2 million of which have gone specifically to the programs focused on the needs of Hispanic families.

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“I’d say my parents left a standard, and I try to measure my behavior against that standard at all times,” says Arsht. “The two characters my mother most related to were Joan of Arc, who died for a cause, and Don Quixote, who was always tilting at windmills.

“Sometimes you just take on something because it’s something you believe in, and you think it’s real. Maybe it’s not, but you did it because you believed in it.”

Arsht is funny and sharp and self-deprecating.

“She’s so unassuming and unpretentious. For someone who has that kind of wealth, she’s one of the least pretentious people I’ve met,” says U.S. Senator Tom Carper, for whom she held several fundraising dinners in her Florida home. “She’s a great person, a lot of fun to be with.”

But her special skill, mentioned repeatedly by everyone from Justice O’Connor to Carper to Christine Cannon, who runs the Arsht-Cannon Fund, is Arsht’s willingness to connect her connections.

When she says she’s going to do something, she does it. Immediately. It could be something small, like putting one of her favorite jewelry designers in touch with a Washington Post editor she met at a recent lunch for the new White House social secretary. Or it could be the kind of gesture that changes someone’s life.

Arsht met Grace Gary randomly. Gary gave a talk in Miami about the Nemours Mansion and Gardens, where she is executive director. Arsht happened to go. The two started talking, Arsht invited Gary to see the William Jennings Bryan house, which Arsht had just finished renovating.

Gary started talking about her brother, who is mentally challenged, and some of the obstacles she faced finding programs for him. Arsht put Gary in touch with Cannon, the Delaware fund director, to talk about the issue. Three hundred thousand dollars later, the BrightStart! program was developed to help children with reading disabilities.

“I carefully avoid calling it networking, because that’s such a self-serving term,” says Gary. “She had nothing to gain by helping me. I think Adrienne thinks in terms of connections and in terms of service, and she’s an extremely energetic person who makes the time to do the things that she wants—and that seems to involve helping people a great deal.”

Arsht is very aware that she has an ability to help people in a way that most cannot. She started working at her father’s company in 1966, where she was the only woman in the law firm.

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“It wasn’t easy, but she took it in stride pretty doggone well,” says Walter King Stapleton, a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals based in Philadelphia. Judge Stapleton remained in contact with Arsht after she moved to Washington, D.C. He is now one of three advisers on the Arsht-Cannon Fund. “She gained composure and confidence as she went along.”

Arsht joined the legal department of Trans World Airlines in 1969, moved to Washington, D.C., in 1979 and started her own company before moving to Miami as chair of TotalBank in 1996.

Though she grew up in a giving household, it wasn’t until she took over Florida’s TotalBank that she really became involved with the community. In particular, she reached out to the Hispanic community, working with non-profits such as Amigos for Kids.

In 2007 she sold the bank for $300 million. A year later, she donated $30 million to Miami’s Performing Arts Center, which was then renamed the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.

“The unintended consequence is that my name is everywhere, and it’s funny and it’s exciting,” says Arsht. “When I’m in Miami, it’s very special, but I can’t escape me.”

She’s asked to speak, to be honored, to be on boards and advising committees, and on and on. And of course, she gets asked for money. So she also works on the fundraising side.

“The best way to ask for a donation is to find out if someone is interested in the cause or what that person’s interest might be,” Arsht says. “It may be that they want a building or a hall or a door or they want their name on something. If that’s what’s the motivating factor, then focus on that. If they’re interested in education, then you focus on the educational component.”

Right now, Arsht serves on eight boards and funds more than a dozen programs, from Best Buddies, a work program for the mentally challenged in Delaware, to the Center for Leadership and Ethics at Goucher College in Baltimore, her mother’s alma mater. The center was created in 2005 to encourage students to explore ethical issues and to discuss the courage of doing the right thing and the consequences that can come along with those decisions.

In Delaware, one of her biggest issues is finding out what the state needs, especially in the Hispanic community. In 2008, Arsht funded a statewide survey to determine what was needed as far as health, education and employment programs. She funded more than $150,000 in grants for literacy programs for both adults and children and created scholarships to Delaware Technical and Community College for students who perform well. She plans to create a health literacy program next year, says Cannon.

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“It’s my job to be out there and learn as much as I can about the organizations that are requesting funding,” Cannon says. “We’re looking for a good fit that’s a connection between the current needs of the state and her compassion for the needs of others.”

Though Arsht isn’t in Delaware on a constant basis, she is in constant touch.

“She has this hope and this dream, as I do, that what we do in Delaware can be a model for other places,” says Cannon.

Leslie Kosek, state director for Best Buddies Delaware, has known Arsht since the program started in June 2008. Arsht became involved with Best Buddies, based in Miami, through Eunice and Anthony Shriver. Arsht wanted to bring Best Buddies to Delaware, so she donated $750,000 over three years to get it started.

“One of the things that resonates with me is that she doesn’t just fund you and say, ‘Go run the program.’ She says, ‘I want you and your staff to garner support from the Delaware community and get other funders to step up,’” Kosek says.

“It’s, ‘Here’s how I want you to grow for the future,’ and she made phone calls and introduced us to other foundations and philanthropists who are interested in our cause.”

The program has certainly been growing. It started with 600 participants. It ended with more than 4,000, hitting its three-year goal in 18 months throughout 21 schools.

The schmoozing, the traveling, the homes, the orchid—it sounds great to be Adrienne Arsht. And mostly it is.

But there have been hard times as well. When her sister committed suicide in 1973, Arsht hadn’t realized how it devastated her parents. In Alison Arsht’s name, the family established an award for someone who shows “quiet leadership in the right direction,” a phrase that describes her sister perfectly, Arsht says.

Her sister had been a foreign service officer in 1969 when she was arrested in Russia by the KGB and held overnight.

“That devastating experience just kicked off a depression,” says Arsht. “It’s interesting how countries can be friends and allies and enemies.”

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Arsht often has to walk that diplomatic line. She stopped getting involved in politics after the last election, choosing instead to focus on her foundation work.

Though a sign in her kitchen reminds her that the word “no,” is a complete sentence, she mostly says “yes.” Yes to being on a board. Yes to visiting friends for an event.

She’s always said yes, she says, telling a childhood story of how she volunteered to make cupcakes for class—though not her class. Arsht brought cupcakes for another teacher who was having a birthday. It became a family joke, she says.

All that responsibility takes a certain courage, and acceptance of the caretaker role. It’s a role that came with being part of the Arsht family, a heritage, she says, of taking care of yourself and not asking for help.

“What I want on my tombstone is, ‘She had courage and she was a good friend,’” says Arsht.

While Arsht has friends around the world, as well as family, she mostly goes it alone. She travels alone. She went to the White House state dinner for Mexico alone. But her friends aren’t above doing a little networking of their own, it seems.

“What would I get the woman who has everything? “ says Carper. “Maybe the perfect man. There are any number of guys who’d like to stand in line and vie for her hand.”

Arsht laughs solidly for a few minutes after being told about Carper’s matchmaking scheme. Very diplomatically, she says she looks forward to seeing the senator’s picks.

Then, she’s off. Back to New York for a show and a concert and a gathering and dinner, all with long-term plans and hopes and dreams in the making.

And every time she opens her wallet, she sees a little saying by Edmund Burke, a little reminder of how she wants to live her life, for the rest of her life:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

“It’s very powerful and it defines me every day when I wake up,” she says.

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