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How America’s Richest Woman Isn’t Spending Her Money

The Daily Beast 1/9/2023 Emily Shugerman
Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Billionaires David and Julia Koch were best known as dark-money mega-donors to conservative causes and candidates, but they also gave tens of millions of dollars to charity each year. Since David’s death in 2019, however, his widow appears to have sharply slowed her public giving—donating less than $4 million between 2018 and 2021, the last year for which records are available.

The David H. Koch Foundation—founded by the manufacturing titan and now helmed by his wife, the richest woman in America—appears to have gotten rid of its staff and has not received any new funding since Koch’s death. The foundation is slowly working through its dwindling funds, which experts say could signal a planned wind-down.

It does not appear the spending slowdown is the result of a cash crunch. In the last two years, Julia Koch has purchased three new homes worth more than $170 million and embarked on a renovation of her existing $40 million townhouse.

The details of Julia Koch’s donations are based on the David H. Koch Foundation’s IRS 990 forms and a search of news articles, annual reports, and other public records. A representative declined to comment for this article or to confirm this accounting of Koch’s contributions. It is possible that Koch donated anonymously, through an LLC, or through a donor-advised fund, though experts say gifts of more than $1 million are usually reported in the media, either by the donor or recipient. .

Last week, the Cox Science Center & Aquarium in Palm Beach announced a $5 million donation from the David Koch Foundation to build a fountain at the entrance. Complete records from 2022 are not available and it’s not clear if that is the sum total of her charitable giving last year.

In a statement about the Cox gift, Koch said her late husband was “passionate about enhancing research and education in science,” and that she could think of “no better way to honor his memory in this community than with this new fountain bearing his name.”

David H. Koch and Julia Koch attend the unveiling of the David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014. Paul Zimmerman/Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast David H. Koch and Julia Koch attend the unveiling of the David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014. Paul Zimmerman/Getty

When David Koch married socialite Julia Flesher in the Hamptons in 1996, he was well on his way to becoming one of the richest men in the country thanks to his role at Koch Industries, the massive manufacturing company founded by his father and co-run by his brother, Charles. By the time he died in 2019, following health struggles, he had amassed a net worth of approximately $42.2 billion—all of which he passed on to his wife and children. Last year, Forbes named his widow the richest woman in the country, with an estimated fortune of $56 billion.

While her husband was alive, the couple gave widely and publicly—to Koch and his brother’s dark-money political group, as well as major hospitals and arts organizations. In 2007, Koch donated $100 million to MIT for cancer research; in 2008 he pledged $100 million toward the renovation of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. He donated another $100 million to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in 2013—the largest donation it had ever received. Between the foundation and their publicized personal donations, the couple donated an average of about $63 million per year between 2007 and 2017, with only one or two years in which they donated less than $10 million.

Koch promotes herself as a philanthropist on her personal website, which contains a short bio, a list of her philanthropy, news about the foundation, and a link to the foundation’s website. Her bio lists her as a board member of Koch Industries, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and president of the David H. Koch Foundation; the philanthropy page touts her previous donations to NYU Langone and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. Her Wikipedia page describes her as a “socialite and philanthropist.”

The records show that in 2018, however—the first year Julia Koch was at the helm—the David H. Koch Foundation made no donations at all. It also made no donations in 2019, the year her husband died, and donated just $2 million in 2020—half of which went to Duke University, where the couple’s eldest son attended college. In 2021, the last year for which documents are available, the foundation donated a total of $1 million to Columbia University, according to filings first obtained by Koch Docs.

Koch also appears to have made two other outside donations during this time: between $100,000 and $249,000 to St John's Bread and Life in 2020 and an undisclosed amount to the LSA Family Health Service in 2019, according to the organizations’ annual reports.

The foundation appears to have dispensed with its secretary and treasurer in 2018. Julia Koch is now listed on tax documents as the foundation’s director, president, secretary and treasurer. The fund has not received any additional revenue since David’s death, and its value has been steadily decreasing from a high of more than $95 million at the end of 2009. As of the foundation’s most recent filing, it had just $7.1 million in the bank.

According to an expert, this could be a signal that the foundation plans to cease operations at some point.

“We’ll only know that in the future, and it’s not to say that Julia couldn’t reinvigorate it, start something on her own, or do something herself,” said Elizabeth Dale, a professor at Seattle University and expert on women’s philanthropy. “But as far as what you’ve seen in the last few years, I think it is accurate to say [that it could be winding down.]”

Julia Koch and David Koch attend the New York City Ballet 2009 Winter Gala at David H. Koch Theater. Nick Hunt/Patrick McMullan via Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast Julia Koch and David Koch attend the New York City Ballet 2009 Winter Gala at David H. Koch Theater. Nick Hunt/Patrick McMullan via Getty

If Koch is planning to dissolve the foundation, it could be because she has started a donor-advised fund or LLC through which to donate, which require significantly less public disclosure and are increasingly popular options with the ultra-rich. She could also be making personal donations anonymously. A spokesperson declined to comment on whether she had pursued, or planned to pursue, another avenue for giving.

Along with his personal foundation, David Koch served as a director of the Koch Family Foundation—a charity established in honor of his parents and funded by Koch Industries. Charles Koch and his daughter, Elizabeth, were also directors of the foundation, which generally donates between $2 million to $5 million a year. Julia did not assume David’s place on the board after he stepped down in 2017.

Julia Koch made several large personal purchases over this same time period, starting with the couple’s purchase of a $40 million, eight-bedroom Upper East Side townhouse in 2018. Julia started renovations on the 15,000 square-foot apartment with celebrity designer Peter Marino in 2020, according to Page Six.

After David’s death, his widow purchased three more homes: a $101 million pair of co-ops on the Upper East Side and a $70 million home in the Hamptons. The townhouses were previously owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and their sale set a record for the highest price paid for a city co-op. The Hamptons house has 15 rooms and 500 feet of beach access, and complements her $18 million Hamptons estate, according to Page Six. A source told the outlet that Koch has plans to restore the historic property.

There are a dozen people in the U.S. richer than Koch—all of them men, and many of them less charitable. (Elon Musk, Larry Ellison, and Larry Page have all given away less than 1 percent of their wealth, according to Forbes.) But if Koch has not given outside of her publicly recorded donations since 2018, she would be an outlier among other wealthy women.

MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, sits two places behind Koch on the list of America’s richest women but has donated more than more than $14 billion of her $37.7 billion fortune in the last three years. Scott has publicly pledged to give away half of her wealth over her lifetime—a pledge notably cosigned by fellow female billionaire and divorcee Melinda French Gates, ex-wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. (French Gates, who has a comparably paltry $6.4 billion fortune, still conducts most of her giving through the foundation she runs with her ex.)

Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress who is the second-richest woman in America, recently founded the Alice L. Walton Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving education, health, and access to the arts, according to its website. She donated more than $29 million to charity through the foundation in 2019, $17.6 million in 2020, and $16.9 million in 2021, according to the latest tax filings obtained by The Daily Beast. Before launching her own foundation in 2018, Walton contributed to her family foundation and also founded the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arizona.

There are two other widows among America’s richest women: Miriam Adelson, the widow of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The Adelsons donated around $100 million per year through their family foundation in 2019 and 2020, mostly to conservative causes. The IRS has not published tax documents for the Adelson Family Foundation in 2021, the year Sheldon Adelson died, so it is unclear how his death affected the family’s giving.

Powell Jobs’ giving is difficult to track because it mostly occurs through an LLC, not a foundation. But the businesswoman has publicly pledged to give $3.5 billion of her $12.6 billion fortune over the next 10 years to the Waverley Street Foundation, an organization her husband founded in 2016 to fight climate change. And she previously told The New York Times she had instructed her company, the Emerson Collective, to give away all of her wealth over the course of her life. “I’m not interested in legacy wealth buildings, and my children know that,” she told the Times. “If I live long enough, it ends with me.”

Mars Candy heiress Jacqueline Mars, the fourth-richest woman in the country, has an estimated net worth of $37 billion, but her family foundation generally donates less than $2 million per year. A spokesperson declined to provide specifics—or even ballpark numbers—on any other donations, but said Mars makes “significant charitable donations to a wide range of organizations supporting the arts, sports, environment, and local communities” and does so “overwhelmingly privately and without seeking publicity.”

Women like Scott, French Gates, and Powell Jobs dominate the headlines with news about their giving and features about how female billionaires are “reshaping the face of philanthropy.” But Dale said it is equally important to shine a spotlight on women whose giving—or lack thereof—makes less of a splash.

“We don’t necessarily leverage the same critique or criticism on those wealthy individuals who chose not to give as much or to as many organizations,” Dale said.

“People want to know, ‘What are these people doing with their money?’ but we often don’t go a step or two deeper to say, ‘Are they giving it back in some way or is it just going to be passed onto heirs?’” she added. “That’s a question that should be part of the conversation.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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