Tactical philanthropist, Yvon Chouinard founder of Patagonia
Tactical Philanthropist, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, in Wilson, Wyoming on August 12, 2022. NATALIE BEHRING/THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

5 Steps Towards Tactical Philanthropy

Tactical philanthropy in action – Yvon Chouinard made headlines last week after he donated his entire company, Patagonia, to charity. What makes Mr. Chouinard, different from other billionaire philanthropists? Is it the types of organizations he and his family have supported over the years? Is it his modest lifestyle, “Even today, he wears raggedy old clothes, drives a beat-up Subaru and splits his time between modest homes in Ventura and Jackson.” Is it how he grew his business and figured out a succession plan? 

These questions, along with a few others that we will outline below, is what makes a Tactical Philanthropist.

On their own, wealthy business owners (or their advisors) as these questions regularly. What makes Chouinard unique amongst his peers, is how a single philanthropic solution answers all of these questions… Donate the company (Patagonia) to further your “Why”.

Five Steps on How to be a tactical philanthropist

  1. Be clear on your values. In the case of the Chouinard-Patagonia transaction, the philanthropic activities are driven, not by an external motivator of tax planning, nor by wealth preservation, nor due to family strife, nor corporate mismanagement. Rather, his core values of caring for the environment, ensuring worker well-being, and living modestly drive his philanthropy plan.
  2. Gain clarity on the external motivations. For some, a foundation is as much a way to manage taxes as it is a demonstration of family values. Foundations are used in a number of ways:
    • for family members to stay connected,
    • learn new skills (leadership development), and
    • legacy preservation.
  3. Ask questions… lots of questions… To start you off, here are tools & resources.

Using the code name Project Chacabuco, a reference to a fishing spot in Chile, a small group of Patagonia lawyers and board members began working on possibilities.

Over the next several months, the group explored a range of options, including selling part or all of the company, turning Patagonia into a co-operative with the employees as owners, becoming a nonprofit and even using a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC.

“We kind of turned over every stone, but there just weren’t really any good options that could accomplish their goals,” said Hilary Dessouky, Patagonia’s general counsel.

(New York Times, Sept. 14, 2022, Republished by the Globe & Mail on Sept. 15, 2022)
  1. Dive in. Explore and then advance your social vision. For years, Chouinard and Patagonia have been rowing in the same direction. It was fairly clear for those around them to channel philanthropic efforts into aligned purposes. From the corporate philanthropy in conservation projects to his personal/political activities around climate change, the Founder’s social mandates and the Company’s corporate citizenship activities are in lockstep.
  2. Finally the fifth step to tactical philanthropy is ACTIVATION. What makes the Patagonia case even more interesting is not the size of the contributions, it is the corporate structures governing the philanthropic activities. In this case, two new entities were created in the United States. One focuses on political activities, the Holdfast Collective (of note, this does not generate any tax benefits). The second, Patagonia Purpose Trust. Family members govern the latter, but the they do not receive any direct benefits (in fact, Chouinard paid $17.5 Million in taxes as a result of the transfer of the corporate shares into this trust).

Tactical Philanthropy & Legacy

We, at Karma & Cents, often have succession planning conversations with families who have operating companies. In some cases, the leadership transition is well-thought-out and clearly communicated between the parties. In other cases, there is no clear plan or there are no clear successors. As in the case of Patagonia, where two of the children are on Patagonia’s payroll, but did not want to take over the business. What is an owner to do?

The type of structure you put around your charitable activities should align with the work you want to accomplish, in the time horizon you want to accomplish it in. In the case of the Chouinard family, they stated outright,

“It was important to them that they were not seen as the financial beneficiaries…They felt very strongly about it. I know it can sound flippant, but they really embody this notion that every billionaire is a policy failure.”

Ryan Gellert, CEO Patagonia.

Having such a unified front within the family system makes for finding solutions much easier. “For the Chouinards, it resolves the question of what will happen to Patagonia after its founder is gone, ensuring that the company’s profits will be put to work protecting the planet.” (New York Times, Sept. 14, 2022, Republished by the Globe & Mail on Sept. 15, 2022)