Mega-Philanthropist with Profound Legacy:H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest (1930 -2018)

H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, cable-television pioneer, mega-philanthropist, and civic leader, has died at the age of 88. His extraordinary generosity and wisdom will have a lasting impact.

I had the privilege of knowing Gerry. I was especially honored that he provided the Foreword to my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing. I want to share some of his astute words with you. However, I first want to tell you a bit about this great man and his exceptional life.

Gerry Lenfest (left) with Michael Rosen.

Gerry was not born into great wealth. He was born in Jacksonville, FL, and raised in Scarsdale, NY and later on the family farm in Hunterdon County, NJ. After his mother died when he was 13-years-old, his father sent him to the George School, a private boarding academy. A troubled student, he was invited not to return after just one year.

At his new school, young Gerry continued to be something of a juvenile delinquent, his own description. Finally, his father enrolled him at Mercersburg Academy where teenage Gerry began to excel.

Following high school, Gerry was directionless. He worked as a roughneck in North Dakota, a farm hand, and as a crew member on an oil tanker. Eventually, he attended Washington and Lee University where he received an undergraduate economics degree. He served in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of captain. In 1955, he married Marguerite Brooks, an elementary school teacher. Gerry went on to receive his law degree from Columbia University and, then, served with a prestigious New York law firm.

Walter Annenberg hired Gerry in 1965 to work at Triangle Publications, Inc., owner of Seventeen and TV Guide magazines, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News newspapers, television and radio stations, and several cable television properties. With the help of loans and two investors, he bought two tiny cable systems from Annenberg in 1974 to start Lenfest Communications. In 2000, Gerry’s company had grown from 7,600 subscribers to over 1 million to become the 11th largest cable company in the nation. That same year, he sold the company to Comcast, netting $1.2 billion in the deal.

Gerry always attributed his great success to the skill and dedication of his various teams and good fortune, whether in business or with the nonprofit organizations he worked with. Knowing he owed much of his success in life to others motivated him, in turn, to help others.

The Lenfests signed on to The Giving Pledge, a movement of wealthy individuals who commit to donating the majority of their fortunes. Over more than two decades, the Lenfests have donated more than $1.3 billion to over 1,200 nonprofit organizations. The top 10 recipients of support from the Lenfests are (source:

Columbia University 155.0
Lenfest Institute for Journalism 129.5
Mercersburg Academy 109.0
Philadelphia Museum of Art 107.3
Washington and Lee University  81.0
Museum of the American Revolution  63.0
Curtis Institute of Music  60.0
Lenfest (Pew) Ocean Program  53.3
Wilson College  40.0
Lenfest Scholars Program  32.0

In addition to his enormous philanthropy, Gerry served on a number of nonprofit boards including Columbia University, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of the American Revolution, which he helped create. In 2005, Gerry and Marguerite were awarded the Association of Fundraising Professionals Award for Outstanding Philanthropists.

You can read more about Gerry Lenfest’s extraordinary story by clicking here.

While I could say much, much more about Gerry and his tremendous, positive impact, I’d rather share some of Gerry’s own words with you. Gerry provides some sage advice for fundraising professionals about what they must do to secure significant contributions:

Knowing your prospects and understanding what motivates them are two critical steps in the [philanthropic] process. Quite simply, you cannot skip cultivation and relationship building and expect a successful outcome.”

Lenfest was also keenly aware that the fundraising process should not end when an organization receives a donation. He advises:

Do not make the mistake of forgetting about us once you receive our gift commitment. We may truly appreciate how efficiently and effectively you handle contributed funds so much that we entrust you with another [donation]. We are also in a position to influence others to do the same.”

As a strong advocate for planned giving, Gerry observes:

Through my voluntary work with nonprofit organizations, I have seen the tremendous power of planned giving. I have always known that some of the most prominent names in philanthropy—for example, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor and, more recently, Annenberg—have left lasting philanthropic legacies through significant planned gifts that have established or transformed nonprofit institutions. But I have also seen that the impulse to support worthwhile causes is present and also acted upon by those of more modest means.

Planned gifts are the major gifts of the middle class and such gifts, cumulatively, have a significant impact. Such gifts also have great meaning for the donors themselves. When it is part of estate planning, planned giving can offer a means to help donors take care of their families in ways not otherwise available to them, and yet still provide added support to the charitable causes they cherish. No organization is too small to benefit from having a planned gift endeavor as a critical component of its development program. It can be very tempting for charities to focus limited resources only on immediate, annual giving, or short-term pledges such as for capital campaigns. However, for any nonprofit organization to achieve long-term sustainability, it must incorporate, at the very least, the fundamentals of a planned gift program.

Part of the beauty of planned giving is that virtually any organization and any donor can participate. While the largest nonprofit organizations may offer comprehensive gift planning programs, even the smallest charities can encourage donors to make a gift of appreciated stock, a contribution from a retirement fund, or to leave something to the organization in their will. Planned giving is not something that should be restricted to the wealthiest of philanthropists or the largest of organizations. Enabling such giving opportunities creates a win-win scenario for organizations and their donors.”

To read more of Gerry’s thoughts about gift planning, click here to download a free copy of his Foreword to Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing, my book that won the AFP-Skystone Partners Prize for Research in Fundraising and Philanthropy.

In 2016, shortly before the opening of the newly created Museum of the American Revolution, the institution celebrated Gerry’s remarkable contributions and leadership with the following video:

Through his work, leadership, and generosity, Gerry Lenfest has been a profound help and inspiration to countless people, most certainly including me. While his passing is certainly sad, we can take some comfort in knowing that the world is a much better place for his having been part of it.

Thank you, Gerry!

I invite you to share your memories of Gerry Lenfest below in the comment section.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

2 Comments to “Mega-Philanthropist with Profound Legacy:H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest (1930 -2018)”

  1. Some very wise words to take to heart that Gerry shared about Planned Giving for individuals and organizations. God rest his soul!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: