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Gelbaum’s market losses reach the ACLU

By A. James Memmott

December 10, 2009 at 10:31am

Add the American Civil Liberties Union to the list of not-for-profit institutions suffering because of the recession.

The New York Times reported this week that a previously anonymous donor told the group in September that he couldn’t make his annual gift of over $20 million at least for next year because of “market conditions.”

Through unnamed sources, the Times identified the donor as David Gelbaum, a hedge fund manager and major contributor to environmental causes as well as the ACLU.

Gelbaum, 60, lives in California and first donated to the ACLU in the early 1980s. His contributions started at around $50,000 annually and reached $22.5 million in 2008.

To help make up for the loss of Gelbaum’s money, the ACLU has received pledges of $23 million to be paid over the next three years, the Times reports.

Nonetheless, this leaves a gap, and organization officials say that they will have to make budget cuts on top of cuts made at the end of last year triggered by investment losses.

Very few people within the ACLU knew that Gelbaum was a prime benefactor of the organization.

Similarly, Gelbaum has preferred not to draw attention to his contributions to other organizations through the years.

“I don’t think that if you have a lot money and you give away a lot of money, you should get a lot of recognition. You shouldn’t be able to buy that,” Gelbaum told the Los Angeles Times in 2004.

The 2004 story by Kenneth R. Weiss would seem to be the only major media profile on Gelbaum, who agreed to interviews with the paper “only reluctantly.”

The story reports that Gelbaum, the son of mathematics professor Bernard R. Gelbaum, was a math whiz in college at the University of California, Irvine.

He then made his millions by applying mathematical formulas to the selection of investments.

Gelbaum worked at the former Princeton-Newport Partners and then at Sierra Enterprises Group, LLC., before retiring from that firm.

He now invests through Quercus Trust, which funds a variety of companies involved in green technology.

Gelbaum told the Los Angeles Times that his interest in conservation and the environment goes back to his youth and camping trips in northern Minnesota and other places.

In 2001, he gave two gifts totaling $101.5 million to the Sierra Club Foundation.

He’s also a co-founder and major contributor to The Wildlands Conservancy, a group formed to preserve land in California and fund outdoor education programs for young people.

In addition, Gelbaum has been an opponent of efforts in California to deny education and health care to undocumented immigrants.

He told the Los Angeles Times that his views on immigration go back to the fact that his Jewish grandfather, Abraham, came to this country from his native Ukraine to escape persecution.

“I asked, ‘Abe, what do you think about all of these Mexicans coming here?’” Gelbaum said. “Abe didn’t speak English that well. He said, ‘I came here. How can I tell them not to come?’”

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