Spiritual Civilization: Personal Stories: Jerry Hirsch

I started thinking about my legacy and I said, “What would happen to me when I die? What would I be remembered for?” Mainly at the time, this was many years ago, before they had Walmart’s they had Kmart’s and I was a developer of Kmart’s. And I said, “I envisioned my tombstone would say ‘Before there was Hirsch there were 423 Kmart’s and now there are 667.’” Is that what I wanted my legacy to be? And I said, “No. There must be something more meaningful than that.”

So right off the bat I decided no more business and I would do something else. I didn’t know what it was and I started thinking more intensely of my wife, and my family, and my kids, and after I did that I would write everything down. And I kept on writing and writing and I went through pad after pad. And all of a sudden after a couple of days I even started writing some poetry. And I said, “You know,” I had an epiphany, “maybe I can become a writer, maybe even a poet.” And all of a sudden my whole frame of mind changed and I said, “You know, I don’t know anything about writing poetry but I’m going to go back to school.” And so after a week most of my depression, a good part of it went away and I enrolled in the university, took literature and creative writing courses. And I couldn’t get rid of my business at that time but slowly we decided no more new projects; we would just slowly but surely get rid of the old ones. And it took many years actually to do that.

So I went to university initially half time and was in business half time. Well you can imagine after a few months in the morning I would study Shakespeare and the afternoon I would negotiate a Walmart lease, or a Kmart lease. The juxtaposition was challenging. But I did that and was really excited about what I was doing. And I went through little points in my life that changed me. And the first point was one morning we were discussing that very famous poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How many ways [sic] I love thee, let me count the ways,” absolutely beautiful poem. And that day I was having lunch with one of my old real estate buddies and he comes up to me and said, “Jerry, I just made $2,000,000 on this real estate deal in a week.” And as he was telling me that and I said to myself, “What would I rather do? Would I rather have been the author, the poet who wrote that poem and over the last 200 years has been the vehicle for thousands of lovers to express their love for each other, or would I rather be the real estate guy who made $2,000,000?

What if the real estate guy had made $20,000,000, or $200,000,000? What would I rather be? The guy who had written that poem.” And all of a sudden for the first time in my life I realized the potential for me actually doing something that was more satisfying than making any money.


Jerry Hirsch is the founder and Chairman of The Lodestar Foundation. Lodestar’s mission is to expand philanthropy through two strategies: first, to create more philanthropists by encouraging philanthropy, public service and volunteerism; and second, to increase philanthropic impact by encouraging nonprofits to collaborate and employ business practices. Some of Lodestar’s projects include: the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation, a partnership including Arizona State University and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which provides education for philanthropists, nonprofit professionals, volunteers and students; The Collaboration Prize, a contest to recognize the best nonprofit collaborations in the United States; and the development of an online database of more than one thousand nonprofit collaborations, launched in 2009 and maintained in partnership with The Foundation Center on the Foundation Center website. Besides these and other projects, Lodestar has facilitated the successful implementation of numerous enduring nonprofit collaborations in the U.S. and internationally. Because of Lodestar’s work in this area, Jerry was recognized in 2010 by Barron’s magazine as one of the world’s 25 most effective philanthropists.

Jerry was also instrumental in creating the Social Venture Partners International network and has been actively involved in philanthropy development projects in Asia and Central and Eastern Europe. In addition to directing Lodestar’s efforts, Jerry serves as an advisor to several organizations that work to resolve conflicts in various parts of the world. Jerry holds a BA from Temple University and a JD (magna cum laude) from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU. Prior to his career in philanthropy, Jerry practiced law and was an entrepreneur in the computer/aerospace industry and in commercial real estate development, including theme parks, hotels, office buildings and shopping centers.