Unconventional philanthropist dies at 87

It’s sad to meet and fall in love with a man when you are in the process of reading his obituary. 

So it was for Your Working Girl and Robert W. Wilson, a gay, atheist, short-sell specialist, well-known known for his philanthropy.   A masterful mass of contradiction, Mr. Wilson contributed an estimated $600 million to charity during his lifetime, to environmental and civil rights causes and – unique among atheists – the Roman Catholic school system.  (He felt it was more efficient.)

He loved opera and chaired the New York City Opera board for 12 years.  He always took the subway, saying that the worst thing you could do with money was to spend it.

What was once an unheard of practice in the fundraising world, he used his donations to leverage more.

“Mr. Wilson attached one major condition to almost all his contributions — namely, that the money be used to spur matching contributions from others,” The New York Times wrote in his obituary.

“In most cases, the check was delivered only after the other donors had been lined up.  Mr. Wilson began using the technique in the late 1980s, before matching gifts were common in the fund-raising world.”

Mr. Wilson suffered one stroke in June and, reportedly, another about five months later.  He leapt to his death from his 16th floor Central Park West apartment in December and was found in an inner courtyard.  It was a building that had housed Bono, Steven Spielberg, Tiger Woods and Bruce Willis at one time or another.

In an approach consistent with how he lived his life, the manner of Mr. Wilson’s passing was definitive and direct.  The note he left behind reported the cause of death and, according to The New York Post, said ‘I had a rewarding life. Thank you and goodbye to all my friends. Please make sure you cancel all my plans. Tell everyone what I did. I’m not ashamed of killing myself.  Sell all my stuff.’

He left one brother, William, who is 88.  And one smitten Working Girl.

To view Mr. Wilson’s full obituary in the New York Times, click here.

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