The Biggest Philanthropist You’ve Never Heard Of
Adrienne Arsht learned to give while growing up in Wilmington. She may call a triumvirate of large Eastern cities her home now—if the relentless traveler can be said to have a home at all—but she can never leave Delaware behind.
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“It wasn’t easy, but she took it in stride pretty doggone well,” says Walter King Stapleton, a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals based in Philadelphia. Judge Stapleton remained in contact with Arsht after she moved to Washington, D.C. He is now one of three advisers on the Arsht-Cannon Fund. “She gained composure and confidence as she went along.”
Arsht joined the legal department of Trans World Airlines in 1969, moved to Washington, D.C., in 1979 and started her own company before moving to Miami as chair of TotalBank in 1996.
Though she grew up in a giving household, it wasn’t until she took over Florida’s TotalBank that she really became involved with the community. In particular, she reached out to the Hispanic community, working with non-profits such as Amigos for Kids.
In 2007 she sold the bank for $300 million. A year later, she donated $30 million to Miami’s Performing Arts Center, which was then renamed the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.
“The unintended consequence is that my name is everywhere, and it’s funny and it’s exciting,” says Arsht. “When I’m in Miami, it’s very special, but I can’t escape me.”
She’s asked to speak, to be honored, to be on boards and advising committees, and on and on. And of course, she gets asked for money. So she also works on the fundraising side.
“The best way to ask for a donation is to find out if someone is interested in the cause or what that person’s interest might be,” Arsht says. “It may be that they want a building or a hall or a door or they want their name on something. If that’s what’s the motivating factor, then focus on that. If they’re interested in education, then you focus on the educational component.”
Right now, Arsht serves on eight boards and funds more than a dozen programs, from Best Buddies, a work program for the mentally challenged in Delaware, to the Center for Leadership and Ethics at Goucher College in Baltimore, her mother’s alma mater. The center was created in 2005 to encourage students to explore ethical issues and to discuss the courage of doing the right thing and the consequences that can come along with those decisions.
In Delaware, one of her biggest issues is finding out what the state needs, especially in the Hispanic community. In 2008, Arsht funded a statewide survey to determine what was needed as far as health, education and employment programs. She funded more than $150,000 in grants for literacy programs for both adults and children and created scholarships to Delaware Technical and Community College for students who perform well. She plans to create a health literacy program next year, says Cannon.
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