H.F. Lenfest Made Fortune on Cable, Then Focused on Giving Most of It Away

Jakes Hagert:

Wendy Kopp was riding a train to New York one winter morning 17 years ago when a chatty older man sat next to her. She tried to cut the conversation short and get back to work on her laptop. He persisted. She finally told him all about the charity she founded, Teach for America, which sends teachers to work in low-income areas.

Giving away money became Mr. Lenfest’s mission after he sold the cable-TV company Lenfest Communications in 2000. He and his wife, Marguerite, preferred to give most of their wealth away in their lifetimes rather than creating a perpetual foundation whose trustees might stray from their vision. So far, their gifts total more than $1.2 billion.

Mr. Lenfest, who died Aug. 5 at age 88, relied on his instincts about people in making gifts. His wife was more deliberative. She kept a note on the refrigerator reminding him to remember two words when people asked for money: “no” and “why.”

In 2014, Mr. Lenfest acquired the ailing publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com for about $88 million. Two years later he donated that company to a nonprofit, now known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, charged with preserving quality journalism in Philadelphia and testing ideas that might sustain fact-based news reporting elsewhere.

“I can’t think of any cause that we support that’s more important than the support of the newspapers,” Mr. Lenfest said in 2014. He avoided interfering in editorial policy, other than by objecting when reporters described him as a billionaire. He explained to one editor that his purchase of newspapers had instantly deflated his net worth.