Raymond Chambers may be one of the best-known philanthropists you've never heard of. While you aren't likely to see his name in the media (he prefers to work quietly behind the scenes), Chambers is often at the top of the must-call list when governors, presidents and other high-level movers and shakers want to get things done.
His philanthropic work over the past two decades has ranged from revitalizing the ailing social and economic infrastructure of his hometown, Newark, New Jersey, to creating major national organizations to promote volunteering and mentoring of at-risk youth.
Now Chambers has taken on his most ambitious project yet, as co-founder and chairman of the Millennium Promise Alliance, which is mobilizing private partnerships in support of the campaign to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. (See related story.) The move marks his first major entry into the arena of global philanthropy after two decades of engagement in local and national causes in the US.
The common denominator in these disparate activities is an approach that weds a tough-minded business mentality with philanthropy to serve the most vulnerable members of society.
"Over the many years I have known Ray, I have often found him to be tough as nails, yet consistently as compassionate as anyone I have ever known," said Barbara Bell Coleman, former director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark and an early collaborator with Chambers on expanding programs for at-risk youth in that city. "Ray is a man of enormous capacity who encourages all of us, to the extent possible, to partner with others to maximize resources."
The evolution of a philanthropist
A pioneer in the leveraged buyout industry, Chambers founded Wesray Capital Corporation with former US Treasury Secretary William E. Simon in 1981 and led
the acquisition of dozens of major companies such as Avis Rent A Car, Outlet Broadcasting, and Wilson Sporting Goods. Yet in the mid-1980s, in the prime of a successful and highly lucrative career in finance, he realized that something was missing.
"One day my partner Bill Simon came into my office and said, 'We're at the top of Wall Street and have exceeded our best expectations, and you don't look happy,' " Chambers recalls. "I had always thought that if you had family and health and financial security, you'd be happy, and I wasn't feeling that way. Bill asked what it would take for me to be happy, and I said, losing it all and starting over again. And he told me I needed a vacation," Chambers said.
It was during this same period that Chambers was introduced to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark and began to find in his work with young people in the community a type of personal engagement and satisfaction that had eluded him in his professional career.
Born and raised in Newark, Chambers had been through the riots there in 1967 and watched as urban flight devastated the city where he had grown up and attended college, at Rutgers University. Those who moved out were middle-class residents, leaving the most challenged and impoverished behind.
Mobilizing Wall Street skills for underserved youth of Newark
Working with Barbara Bell, then-director of the Boys & Girls Clubs, Chambers used capital and savvy gained from his financial career to revitalize the organization's rundown facilities, assemble an influential board and expand services for Newark's at-risk youth and their families.
Viewing education as a key to empowerment, Chambers and Bell set up scholarship programs in local high schools and colleges but soon discovered that the majority of children they sought to assist had stopped learning by the time they were 10 years old.
Thus was born the READY (Rigorous Education Assistance for Deserving Youth) program, which combined provision of college tuition with a range of mentoring, tutoring, cultural enrichment, and family assistance services for 1,000 low-income children from five to seven years old. Funding for the READY program came from the Amelior Foundation, established by Chambers to support social and economic welfare projects in Newark.
Chambers continues to support the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark through the Amelior Foundation and the MCJ Foundation, a family foundation that takes its name from the first initials of his three children, Michael, Christine and Jennifer.
"I found myself so engaged in the READY program that the next business transaction at Wesray no longer had any allure for me," said Chambers, who closed the company in 1989 and put all his assets in trust so he could devote himself full-time to philanthropy.
"For the last 17 years, I have worked with children in different causes and found those years more rewarding than the great days we had in the financial business," Chambers said.
"To see how he lives his life, Ray is a terrific role model for people who've acquired wealth at an early age," said Jeff Flug, CEO and Executive Director of the Millennium Promise Alliance.
When a President calls: fostering volunteerism nationwide
In 1990, Chambers was drawn into the national philanthropic arena when US President George H.W. Bush asked him to become the founding chairman of the new Points of Light Foundation and help him mount a national effort to engage more people and resources in volunteer service to help solve serious social problems.
The same year, Chambers founded a sister entity, the National Mentoring Partnership, which enabled him to put into practice at a national level the lessons learned in Newark about the value of caring adults in the lives of young people. His cofounder in the initiative was Geoff Boisi, a veteran of Goldman, Sachs & Co., who was inspired by Chambers' example to leave Wall Street and take up the cause of mentoring.
Since the founding of the National Mentoring Partnership, the number of mentors in the United States has increased from an estimated 250,000 to more than three million, in large part through creative media campaigns informed by business marketing techniques.
"We learned that a youngster at risk who has a mentor for just 12 months is 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs or to skip school. From a businessman's perspective, you can see the benefit of going from 250,000 mentors to three million, and now we have a target of six million in the next five years," said Chambers.
With General Colin L. Powell, Chambers founded America's Promise -- The Alliance for Youth, an outgrowth of a presidential volunteerism summit spearheaded by Chambers in 1997 in Philadelphia. The aim of America's Promise is to recruit volunteers and private sector support sufficient to change the lives of an estimated 15 million American young people. The largest US cross-sector alliance ever mounted on behalf of underserved youth, America's Promise has forged partnerships with mayors and governors, businesses, nonprofits organizations, community leaders, faith groups and young people.
The goals of America's Promise are being advanced by the Points of Light Foundation and the National Mentoring Partnership, as well as the Corporation for National Service created by President Clinton. Mrs. Alma Powell took over as chairperson of America's Promise when her husband became Secretary of State in 2001.
The move toward global engagement
For Chambers, September 11, 2001 changed his thinking and work dramatically.
"Colin (Powell) spoke in February 2002, at the World Economic Forum here in New York, after September 11, and he said that we really didn't have a chance for global peace unless we could level the economic playing field," recalls Chambers. "I was intrigued by that, so my family foundation and its staff started working on what indeed we could do to respond to Secretary Powell's call."
"It came to a point where I had to reach out beyond Newark and the US and get engaged globally or else my children and grandchildren won't have an opportunity to have a vision for world peace," said Chambers. "Every leader in business, the non-profit world and government all want the same thing -- peace in our world."
In response to Powell's call to action, Chambers decided to learn as much as possible about the Millennium Development Goals. "My first reaction was that they were too ambitious to be realistic. But I kept coming back to them because they were quantifiable," he said.
"We've tried to structure all our philanthropy where we could use some of the great skills learned in business," said Chambers, a member of The Synergos Institute's Global Philanthropists Circle." Just as business partners look at the bottom line, measurable results where there is a return on the philanthropic investment have always been very important to me. If a child is 50% less likely to abuse drugs from having a mentor, for example, we can actually calculate how much that saves taxpayers and what that means to our society."
"And that's what kept me coming back to the Millennium Development Goals: cutting poverty in half, cutting hunger in half, reducing infant mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three quarters, bringing malaria and AIDS under control -- all measurable things. And 191 nations had signed on to them. But could you get them done by 2015? That was the real daunting question," Chambers said.
Forging partnerships to meet the MDGs
Chambers asked a mutual friend to introduce him to Professor Jeffrey Sachs, head of the UN Millennium Project charged with oversight of progress toward achieving the MDGs. After a series of meetings in which Sachs laid out his vision for meeting the goals, Sachs invited Chambers to come on board and help develop a strategy for enlisting the support of the private sector to achieve them.
To carry out this strategy, Chambers and Sachs created a separate 501(c)(3) organization, the Millennium Promise Alliance, in March 2005 to raise awareness and financial support for the fight against global poverty, disease and hunger. The campaign draws on the support of all parts of society, including individuals, businesses, charitable organizations, faith-based groups and government. To date, the Alliance has raised more than $100 million in private sector funding (see related story below).
"Ray has played a really important role in shaping the Millennium Promise Alliance," says Jeff Flug. "With his network, his access, and his strategic thinking, he is really able to create opportunities for us. He continues to think large about the Millennium Development Goals and ways to achieve them, and he is always doing it in a collaborative manner."
In tackling poverty, hunger and disease on a global scale, Chambers faces the biggest challenge of his philanthropic career. "Jeff said as of two months ago, we were not on a trajectory to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. So that in the next nine years, we're going to have to double up in our energy and our efforts to get there," Chambers said.
"I'm personally convinced that without this type of cohesive plan and an all-inclusive consortium and alliance, we won't reach the Millennium Development Goals. It will take an enormous effort to achieve them, but what a price we'll pay if we don't."