David Rubenstein: The patriotic philanthropist

David M. Rubenstein standing in front of a copy of the U.S. constitution

What guides your giving? Learn how David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-chairman of The Carlyle Group, approaches his philanthropy

Editor’s note: David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-chairman of The Carlyle Group, shared how he chooses to make an impact at Wells Fargo Private Bank’s 2019 Insights and Innovation Symposium. The following article is based on highlights from a discussion about his philanthropic motivations and focus. 

David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-chairman of The Carlyle Group and host of “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer to Peer Conversations” on Bloomberg TV, is a successful entrepreneur and an innovative philanthropist. His career successes began relatively early as he moved from the law to politics and then to a career in private equity investing. His interest in philanthropy developed later, as he came to the realization that he wanted to give away a significant percentage of his money rather than spend it or leave it to his heirs. At this point he also began to understand that gifting your wealth can be surprisingly difficult unless you have a clear philanthropic focus.

Starting from modest means

David’s upbringing and career experiences have had a notable impact on his philanthropy. He grew up in a working-class household of modest means. With little money to spare, he visited the public library weekly and checked out 12 books, the maximum amount his library card would allow. He developed a preference for non-fiction and biographies, which opened his eyes to a different world and the possibilities it offered. His reading habit also fueled the development of his deep love of history.

He earned a scholarship to Duke University, where he studied political science, a choice influenced by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, where he posed the challenge “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” To fulfill this ambition, he attended law school at the University of Chicago, also on a full scholarship.

After graduating law school, David was hired at the law firm of Ted Sorensen, the author of the JFK speech that had so inspired him. Yet, in David’s own words, he quickly discovered he was “not a good lawyer.” So, he course-corrected and, through a personal contact, secured a job on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign team. When Carter was elected, David—at age 27—became the deputy director of domestic affairs and was given an office in the West Wing.

Establishing The Carlyle Group

After leaving the White House and resuming his legal career, he came across two articles that helped change the direction of his career. The first was about Bill Simon, the Secretary of the Treasury under President Nixon and President Ford, who had become involved in leveraged buyouts. The other claimed that, statistically, most entrepreneurs are made before the age of forty. David, at 37, realized he didn’t have any time to waste. So, with no experience in finance, he decided to start his own leveraged buyout firm.

To build the firm with respected financial professionals, he partnered with William Conway and Daniel D’Aniello, who would become his co-founders of The Carlyle Group. The three worked well together because each had their own specialty.

Their location in Washington, DC, away from the cutthroat competition of New York City, allowed them to take more risks. At the time, private equity (PE) firms were run more like mom-and-pop shops, with very few employees, because each raised and managed one fund. David and his partners ignored this convention and raised a family of funds, fueling the firm’s global expansion, while building the infrastructure that allowed the company to scale and have the ballast of a big organization. This approach is now the industry model and has produced exponential growth. When Carlyle was founded, there were only about 250 PE firms, and now there are well over 6,000.

The 2020 Annenburg Constitution Day Civics Survey found that almost half of Americans surveyed could not correctly name the three branches of the US government.

Pursuing his philanthropic passions

David’s philanthropic journey began in earnest in his mid-fifties, when The Carlyle Group had become very successful. At age 54 he made the Forbes 400 list, which trigged his realization that he was two-thirds of the way through his life and needed to start thinking what to do with his wealth. He says he didn’t want to buy yachts or more homes or other things he didn’t need. The other three alternative uses for his money were to: gift it to his children, give it away while he was still alive, or give it away after he was dead. Deciding that it was time to begin thoughtfully making an impact with his money, he opted to give the money away during his lifetime and became one of the first 40 signers of “The Giving Pledge”.

Although 90% of his giving goes to education, medical research, and social programs, his true passion is what he calls “patriotic philanthropy,” which includes the gifting of momentous documents to improve historical literacy.

His interest in gifting historical documents to the nation started when David was offered the opportunity to buy Magna Carta. He discovered that many U.S. citizens don’t know that this document formed the basis for American liberties and rights. He noted that a significant percentage of Americans cannot name the three branches of government. By purchasing Magna Carta along with other significant historical documents for public display, he’s hoping Americans viewing them may be inspired to learn more about their country’s history.

He also has provided funding for a range of national monuments and memorials, as well as the homes of America’s founders, including the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

Continuing his love of literacy

These days, David still reads about two books a week and reading and literacy also are an important component of his philanthropy. He underwrites the National Book Festival, and sponsors a dinner to promote historical literacy and bipartisanship within Congress, a gathering that brings together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and authors such as Doris Kearns Goodwin. His early years spent in the public library continue to have a profound impact on his life and now on the lives of others.