In the first edition of Five Questions for Good, Amy Stursberg, Executive Director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, sat down with Tony James, President of Blackstone, to discuss philanthropy, civic engagement, and the great state of Montana.
Amy Stursberg: What role has philanthropy played in your life?
Tony James: Throughout my life, I have been driven by the idea that if you can make a difference, you should. I believe that the most satisfying kind of philanthropy is philanthropy that matches your personal interests with causes you believe in. For me, this has boiled down to a few areas that I find most compelling: the New York arts institutions, supporting small towns where I have roots, fixing our retirement system, and conservation. Across the board, I try to leave an organization better than when I joined it—whether through fundraising, optimizing operations, refining the mission, or providing active leadership.
AS: You live and work in New York. Why do you feel compelled to support organizations locally? What has your involvement looked like?
HEJ: I support many arts and culture organizations in New York because I think that’s what distinguishes New York from so many other cities and what makes it vibrant and special. To me, the Metropolitan Museum of Art epitomizes that unique New York culture. I joined the Met Board because I felt I could play an leadership role and influence the course of the organization. Even without an arts background, I thought my experience building businesses could be helpful. As the Chairman of the Finance Committee, I’ve been involved with changing the leadership, structure and priorities of the museum. Helping a new organization reach its full potential is satisfying and adds a whole new dimension to one's business life.
AS: In addition to supporting well established organizations, you’ve also spent time in smaller communities across America. How have you engaged in giving back to those?
HEJ: I have a ranch in Montana and a vacation home in northern Michigan, both in tiny little towns. It is towns like these that are the bedrock of America. But sadly, they are in jeopardy; the populations are aging and young people are leaving. As a result, I’ve been heavily involved in supporting those communities—whether it is investing in small businesses, building a firehouse or improving local amenities. There’s nothing better than the highly personal nature of supporting small communities and the immediate, visible impact your efforts have there.
AS: In light of the issues you mentioned, among many others that face the world today, deciding how to allocate your time and energy can be difficult. How do you prioritize which issues you engage in?
HEJ: There are many problems in America any of us could get behind. Some of them just seem so big to me, so daunting and so hard to solve. Those are a little hard for me to see how I make a difference. But when I started to look into retirement security, I realized that I knew enough to help. And it’s fixable—we can solve it.
Climate and conservation are other issues that I have been working on. There are so many people across the world today who view their economic self-interest as being directly in conflict with conservation. And if that’s the case, conservation will always lose. So developing systems whereby those two seemingly conflicting goals are symbiotic is really powerful. They become self-reinforcing. Every country addresses this issue differently, and there are a whole lot of puzzles to solve and effect lasting change. But I believe I can use my Blackstone background to help accomplish that.
AS: On that note, how would you advise Blackstone employees to make the best use of their time and resources?
HEJ: Blackstone employees are very fortunate, and it would be a shame not to pay that forward and get involved in supporting our communities. There are many deserving local, national and international organizations. Every one of them would love to have a talented Blackstone person working with them. I believe that getting involved will enrich your life, as well as the lives of others. It will make you a better business executive and enhance your chance of success, while connecting you to new people. Most importantly, it will make the world a better place.