Wealth Matters: A new generation of the Huntsman family stakes out a new path for charitable giving

(Kim Raff for The New York Times) Peter Huntsman poses at the University of Utah on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019,, after announcing his family’s donation to create a mental health institute at the university.

This week, the Huntsman family — one of the most philanthropic in the United States — made a $150 million gift to the University of Utah to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

The gift was a continuation of the large-scale charitable giving by the family’s patriarch, billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr., who died last year, and his wife, Karen. Jon Huntsman was one of the most philanthropic men of his generation. He was among the first to give away over $1 billion in his lifetime — long before Warren Buffett and Bill Gates created the Giving Pledge to induce billionaires to commit to donating at least half of their fortune to charity.

This week’s donation continues the family’s legacy of giving to health-related charities in Utah, but it also signals a subtle shift in their philanthropy, reflecting a new generation’s priorities.

Jon Huntsman gave hundreds of millions of dollars to cancer research, including $650 million to the University of Utah, where the cancer research center is named for his family. His son Peter R. Huntsman, who has now assumed leadership of the family’s charitable arms, said the family would continue to donate to cancer research, but is also adding mental health research and care.

“It reminds me about where cancer was 30 years ago when my father got involved,” Peter Huntsman said. “Men didn’t talk about prostate cancer because it was emasculating, and women didn’t talk about breast cancer. The workplace now rallies around you if you have cancer. But you wouldn’t come into work and say, ‘I have a real problem with bipolar disorder.’”

All parents hope their children are going to know how to handle money, and families in a position to leave an inheritance want to make sure that their money isn’t squandered or doesn’t cause problems in their children’s lives.

But when it comes to a charitable bequest — money that is sitting in a private foundation or a public charity like a donor-advised fund and must be given away — transferring those family values can be trickier. If the children don’t want to give to the same organizations as their parents, is that all right? Parents may try to make sure that particular areas or institutions are earmarked for donations, but are their children obligated to follow their lead? Is it better if parents let their children give as they wish or should children try to follow their parents’ lead?

“The question is what is the purpose of our wealth,” said Alexandre Monnier, the head of the Hawthorn Institute for Family Success, a new advice offering within Hawthorn, the ultra-high-net-worth arm of PNC Family Wealth. “It’s easy to look back and ask what are some of the values you’re inheriting from the past that you’re carrying forward. But also what are some of the values you want to strike from the records?”

In the case of the Huntsman family, with two charitable arms under the control of the next generation, change was inevitable.

Jon Huntsman’s philanthropy started early. As he recounted in a 2013 interview, he began giving to charity before he had much money to give.

He started when he was making $320 a week as a naval officer in the late 1950s. By the time he had made his first $1 million, he said, he had given a quarter of it to charity.

As he began to accumulate wealth, he said, he began to narrow his charitable giving. Cancer became his focus when he survived a bout in 1992. “My wife and I determined that it was better to select a fewer number of charitable organizations and make a bigger difference,” he said.

Peter Huntsman said he and his siblings had adopted that strategy.

“My father preferred a rifled approach and not a shotgun approach,” he said. “The first time we met as a family after his passing, we talked about whether we wanted a shotgun or rifled approach.”

Peter Huntsman, who is one of nine siblings and is also the chief executive of the company his father created, said the family decided to continue with the focused, or rifled, approach to giving that their father and mother had practiced. But they broadened out the health category to mental health.

Personal reasons motivated Jon Huntsman, and now, his children. Jon Huntsman survived multiple bouts of cancer, and several members of his family died of it. His son Peter said mental health issues had affected the broader family.

“Our commitment to cancer will continue for the next generation at least,” Peter Huntsman said. “With mental health, there were enough experiences in our own family that if we didn’t have the name or the wealth, we wouldn’t have gotten nearly the care we got.”

He said a study showing that Utah ranked last for adult mental health care among the states and the District of Columbia accelerated the family’s donation to a mental health cause. He would consider the $150 million gift a success if people in Utah and the surrounding states began to look to the Huntsman Mental Health Institute for care, the way they do with the cancer center.

“When we think about mental health longer term, we will have succeeded if a single mother in rural Nevada or Idaho has a teenage child they’re worried about and they come to us,” he said. “The real result will be: Is the world going to be any different for that single parent? Or is real psychiatric health the domain of the rich and powerful? If that’s the case, then we’ve really lost the battle.”

While he has taken the lead among his eight surviving siblings, Peter Huntsman said they were very much involved. Their opinions on philanthropy also sometimes differ from their father’s approach.

Monnier said the next generation must determine its path: “Do we want to do what Dad did or do we want to do our own thing?”

The risk in just following parents’ lead, he said, is that family members won’t be engaged and will feel as if they’re being controlled from the grave, as it were.

After the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, for example, Jon Huntsman said he was moved by what he saw on television and began donating to aid groups there. He eventually gave more than $50 million to help rebuild the country’s infrastructure. He also gave scholarships to bring Armenian students to the United States to study.

“I don’t know what took hold of me or why I gave,” he said in 2013. “It just got to my heart.”

But Peter Huntsman said the family could have spent the money given to Armenian relief more efficiently. “When Dad went for the first time, he was over there meeting with the Armenian prime minister,” he said. “He didn’t know the difference between an Armenian and Romanian, but that was entrepreneurial philanthropy.”

“Sometimes it would have incredibly positive results,” he added. “Sometimes he should have stepped back and said if we had a process in place maybe we would have gotten more bang for our buck. But those things don’t happen with emotion.”

Peter Huntsman said he was making sure there were proper processes in place. The siblings, for example, are seeking advice from the foundation’s board of directors, something his father didn’t do. “It was his money and he made the decisions,” Peter said. “When he passed, the foundation and board came to life.”

Yet the family foundation was set up with flexibility built in. The second generation was able to donate to mental health because the mandates included donating to causes in the Western United States and helping the needy — in addition to continuing to finance cancer research.

The mandates can also be changed with a vote of the board, Peter Huntsman said. “I hope the day comes when we cure cancer and divert it all over to mental health.”

Paul Sullivan writes the Wealth Matters column for The New York Times.