March 8, 2021

Hedge Fund Chief Takes Major Role in Philanthropy

“I haven’t done that much so there hasn’t been that much to talk about,” Mr. Steyer, 54, said in an interview recently in the offices of his firm, Farallon Capital Management.

What a difference a year makes. First, Mr. Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, found themselves on center stage in the nonprofit world when they signed onto the Giving Pledge, the public commitment by the wealthy to give away at least half of their fortunes.

Then Mr. Steyer joined a former secretary of state, George P. Shultz, in a crusade against a ballot measure aimed at halting the imposition of California’s stringent clean energy standards.

Now he is working with his brother Jim, 55, to build the Center for the Next Generation, a nonprofit organization that aims to be a loud voice in major public policy debates.

“Politics push elected officials to consider the short term in their decision making,” Tom Steyer said. “We think someone needs to be talking about what we as a society want for the future and the investments we need to make to get there.”

The organization intends to tackle children’s issues and the environment, developing analyses and research, and campaigns across all media platforms to highlight the findings. “We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars on war over the last 10 years at the same time we’ve been spending less and less on kids,” Jim Steyer said. “That’s fiscally insane and morally bankrupt, but no one is talking about it.”

More and more of the nation’s big philanthropists are devoting their money to influencing public policy, like Charles and David H. Koch, the billionaires behind the Tea Party movement, or Peter B. Lewis and Herb and Marion Sandler, who seeded the liberal Center for American Progress.

Such efforts make many uncomfortable, but the Steyer brothers (Tom is a Democrat, Jim is an independent) say the new center will be “fiercely” nonpartisan and work only to get the public to think and talk more about major issues in California and the country at large.

“I believe there is a huge void in American society because no one likes to speak out,” Tom Steyer said. “One of the reasons I admire Warren Buffett so much is that he has the courage of his convictions and steps up and takes part in the public debate.”

He pointed to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s prominent role in the health care debate as a model for the Center for the Next Generation. “We will take the issues of this lost generation head on,” said Matt James, the former Kaiser executive who is the center’s chief. “This will be an aggressive campaign and one that we plan to run for many years, as that is what it will take to begin to turn the tide.”

Tom Steyer and Ms. Taylor have pledged $15 million over five years to seed the center’s operations, but it must also raise money on its own. The Ford Foundation already has contributed $500,000, and, given the brothers’ network of connections, fund-raising is the least of the organization’s worries. “I call myself a member of the Jim Steyer repertory company,” his friend Geoffrey Cowan of the University of Southern California joked.

Just 13 months apart in age, the Steyer brothers’ early life comes right out of “The Catcher in the Rye,” minus its protagonist’s angst. They shared a bedroom in an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, attending the Buckley School, then Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale — where their father, Roy, had attended law school in a class with Potter Stewart, Cyrus R. Vance Sr. and Gerald R. Ford — and Stanford.

After business school at Stanford, where he met Ms. Taylor, Tom Steyer worked at Goldman Sachs, where his boss on the firm’s vaunted risk arbitrage desk was Robert E. Rubin, who later was Treasury secretary. “One thing I remember about that time is his résumé,” Mr. Rubin said. “He had graduated summa cum laude from Yale and was captain of the Eli soccer team, and that combination struck me as pretty unusual.”

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