When Lawrence Benenson gives - which he does frequently and generously - it is with his heart, but also with his mind. That isn’t to say he thinks twice before he gives. He admits to often being spontaneously moved by a “compassionate instinct.” But it is clear that he has put a lot of thought into the act of giving and has quite a bit to say on the topic. So much, that he was invited to speak at the Aish Center (one of numerous non-profits he supports) for an event entitled The Gift of Philanthropy.
Lawrence doesn’t like the term Philanthropist. He prefers “Charitarian” – a term he invented. “Philanthropy is about the giver. Charity is about the receiver,” he explains. “Why not talk about the organization and what it does? Not about how Mr. Blah, Blah, Blah gave $5 million to so and so…who he was married to, who he got divorced from, where he lives and how he made his money. The help that the money provides is what matters.”
The organizations Lawrence supports – over 100 – run the gamut from hunger, homelessness, and education to contemporary art and Jewish culture to, more recently, Fountain House. (We were thrilled and grateful to have honored him at our last Mad About Art Auction and Benefit – the most important showcase and fundraiser for Fountain House Gallery and its artists.) The majority of his causes share a fundamental commitment to social justice and equality – ideals he is irrepressibly passionate about. “I own a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln. It’s on loan at the Brooklyn Museum if you want to see it,” he says.
“I’m on 12 non-profit Boards - which is probably 10 or 11 too many,” he smiles. He believes in giving advice and sharing his experience, but, his favorite way to give is directly. “I once gave a guy on the street $5. Half an hour later, I saw him eating a cantaloupe. That was such a beautiful feeling,” he recalls. “I give out a lot of $2 bills. People may not have smiled in days, but they are so happy to get this $2 bill. And what’s the difference between $2 and $1? 100%. And it makes a 100% difference in someone’s life,” he explains.
Lawrence credits his mom with teaching him, by example, about the importance of giving. “She used to take me to Bloomingdale’s when I was like 6 or 7, unfortunately,” he smiles. “She would hand me money to give to the people begging in front of the store. Years later, when we were moving out of the apartment, there were a lot of clothes. I mean a LOT of clothes. My mom would put them out on the bed and when people would come over, they would be encouraged to take whatever they wanted.”
Now 49, Lawrence describes himself as a mix of two movies: “Caddyshack and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Because I am very silly, but I am also very serious.”
When talking about ideals and beliefs, he is very serious. “I once saw a bumper sticker that said, ‘Remember who you wanted to be’.” When asked if he remembers who he wanted to be and if he is that person today, he pauses. “I am pretty much who I wanted to be. I thought about becoming a politician, even about being President. A lot of people tell me I should run for office.” Despite his role as Principal at Benenson Capital, the real estate company his grandfather founded in 1905, Lawrence admits, “I am almost always on the side of labor versus management. I defend people who can’t defend themselves. I believe what all the movies say – ‘stand up for what you believe.’”
Fundamental to Lawrence’s beliefs is his conviction that “people are put on this earth to help each other.” During his speech at the Aish Center, he pointed out, “being communal is beautiful.” Fountain House couldn’t agree more nor could we ask for a better Honoree, partner or friend.