In 2017, Harold “Gerry” Lenfest stood outside a building named after him and his wife Marguerite on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia’s Old City to officially open the Museum of the American Revolution. It was a project he was deeply invested in both personally and financially, to the tune of $60 million during his lifetime.
Now, on the five-year anniversary of the museum – and four years after Lenfest died – the philanthropist has made another transformative gesture for the museum.
The Lenfest estate has given $50 million to the museum, the largest single gift the institution has ever received, effectively doubling its endowment.
President and CEO Scott Stephenson said interest earned by the endowment has paid for about a third of the museum’s operating costs.
“Our first five years have been about looking at: What kind of visitor, annual visitation can we expect? What are the costs of operations? How do we expand into more digital engagement, raising our national profile?” he said. “We’ve got a much better sense of our needs right now. What this is going to do is cover a larger portion of our operating expenses, so we can focus our fundraising activities around supporting programs and educational programming.”
Stephenson said Lenfest personally orchestrated the future donation before he died in 2018.
The Lenfest estate also gave $50 million to the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a non-profit organization Lenfest founded in 2016. The Institute owns the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper – the largest American newspaper to be owned by a non-profit – and has given $7.5 million in grants to other news outlets, including WHYY.
Like the Museum of the American Revolution, the Lenfest Institute will put the donation toward its endowment.
“Gerry’s foresight in establishing the Lenfest Institute as the philanthropic partner to The Inquirer has reverberated nationally, as more news outlets look to us and rethink their business models,” Rosalind Remer, chair of The Lenfest Institute Board of Managers, said in a statement. “This bequest will help ensure a sustainable future for local journalism so that all Philadelphians have the news and information they need to be engaged in our communities.”
In the 1970s, Lenfest formed a communications company that owned the Suburban Cable company, the sale of which formed his fortune that he subsequently dedicated to philanthropy. Although he and Marguerite gave away more than a billion dollars to more than 1,000 organizations, Stephenson said these last two gifts solidify Lenfest’s enduring interest in both American history and journalism.
“We tell the story of the foundations of our democratic republic, and he also saw that a free press, investigative journalism is an absolutely critical essential aspect of a free society,” Stephenson said. “He wanted to make sure that both of those institutions would be strengthened and would continue.”
Lenfest served as the museum’s board chair from 2005 to 2016, and a painted portrait of him hangs outside the boardroom, where Stephenson often pauses for a moment.
“On my way to my office every morning I try to stop for a moment and just thank him,” he said. “Tens of thousands, if not millions of residents here in southeastern Pennsylvania and in the tri-state region should have cause to do the same thing.”