Effective Family Philanthropy: The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation

Arthur Blank with family and foundation leadership. From left to right: Fay Twersky, Elise Eplan, Josh Kimball, Dena Kimball, Bill Bolling, Arthur Blank, Kenny Blank, Roz Brewar, Suzanne Apple, David Homrich. Not pictured: Nancy Blank and Steve Cannon.

The Blank Family Foundation Reflects on the Past, Plans the Next Generation of Giving

The enormous wealth created by Home Depot, the country’s largest home improvement retailer, looms large in the chain’s home base of Georgia and beyond. It’s also yielded significant family-driven philanthropy over the years, including through multiple foundations connected to the family of billionaire co-founder Arthur Blank.

There’s the Kendeda Fund in Georgia, a foundation launched by Arthur Blank’s former wife Diana Blank, which shuttered in December after three decades of grantmaking. Kendeda, which was steered in its later years by the couple’s daughter Dena Kimball, focused on areas like climate change and land conservation, the rights of women and girls, gun violence prevention, and racial and economic justice in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Arthur Blank himself has been an active philanthropist serving regional and national causes. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, started in 1995, has given to charitable causes across a similar suite of topics: Atlanta’s Westside, democracy, the environment, mental health and wellbeing, and youth development.

It took the donor and the team some time to arrive at these giving priorities. And Arthur Blank, now 81 and worth $8.5 billion, is increasingly looking to the next generations of his family to help shape their philanthropy going forward. Last year, the foundation celebrated a huge milestone: $1 billion in giving. And the Blank Foundation only expects to accelerate its activity from here.

To find out more about the interesting philanthropic crossroads the family is at, we connected with Arthur Blank and President Fay Twersky. In our conversations, they paint a picture of a foundation rooted deeply in family values, but also one that is nimble and open enough to focus increasingly on voices from next-generation family members, as well as the broader community.

The early days and corporate giving

Arthur Blank sounded every bit the New Yorker he grew up as on our Zoom call. Born in Sunnyside, Queens, he lived in a humble, single-bedroom apartment with his brother, his mother Molly and father Max, a pharmacist who passed away when Blank was only a teenager. He and his longtime business partner, fellow billionaire Bernie Marcus, “both came from very, very modest backgrounds.” But Blank’s mother Molly always found a way to make a difference in other people’s lives, even if they didn’t have much, he says.

Blank doesn’t take these kinds of formative experiences lightly, and believes they can leave a lasting impression when you’re young. “Kids learn in large part from what they learned from their parents. So in my own case, I learned a lot by just being [there],” Blank said.

After graduating from Babson College, Blank ended up working at Handy Dan Home Improvement, a regional company in Southern California, along with Marcus. In 1978, the duo were fired from the company. But not long after, they cofounded Home Depot from a coffee shop in Los Angeles, opening up stores in Atlanta the following year with backing from Ken Langone and Pat Farrah. Fast forward a few decades, and Home Depot currently has more than 2,300 stores in three countries, and reported sales of $37.7 billion for the third quarter of fiscal year 2023.

Blank retired as Home Depot co-chairman in 2001 and bought the Atlanta Falcons for $545 million in 2002. This stake is now worth some $2.2 billion, per Forbes. As he tells it, though, Blank infused philanthropy into his business from almost the very start.

“I think the notion of giving back and having our associates involved was always critical to our businesses. Even though we started the company, when we lost half our startup money in the first nine months of the business, we always had a heart for philanthropy,” Blank said, noting that they’ve always tried to find ways to be connected to the communities where stores are based.

Blank says this spirit continues today, as employees not only find value in working for a successful company, but one that “has a heart.” Beyond Home Depot, each of the seven businesses that Blank owns has a corporate philanthropy arm that also makes a “significant contribution.”

Giving while living

The story behind Arthur Blank’s decision to start a family foundation is a lot more personal, and it involves another billionaire family with a groundbreaking retail chain. When Sam Walton, Walmart founder, passed away in 1992, Blank met up with the eldest son Rob Walton at a New York restaurant. They talked about the inheritance Rob was about to receive, but Rob also expressed regret that the whole family hadn’t engaged in philanthropy sooner because his father was so focused on business during his life. Blank started to understand that it takes families some time to all get up to speed philanthropically and that starting sooner rather than later is critical.

With this conversation still looming in his mind, Blank returned to Atlanta and in 1995 started his own foundation so that he could engage all of his family members. “Arthur was quite deliberate when he set up the foundation that he wanted to start giving back during his vibrant years… and wanted to do that with his family,” said Fay Twersky, who joined the Blank Family Foundation in the winter of 2021 after serving as vice president at the Hewlett Foundation.

In its first year of operation, the foundation awarded $5 million in grants. By 2014, that number was nearly $10 million. And in 2022, Blank Foundation made some $91.7 million grants.

The Blank Foundation put a lot of work initially into helping young people have access to opportunity and fostering a vibrant arts and culture scene in Atlanta. One of these efforts, the The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation Speaker Series, came of age after the recession in the late aughts and focused on bringing together leaders in business and arts, filmmakers and journalists. For example, the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation and the Blank Foundation hosted the Georgia premiere of “A Place at the Table,” a 2012 film that uncovers the economic, social and cultural implications of hunger in America. The series also brought in speakers including muralist and public art activist Jane Golden.

Part of this arts focus has been driven by Blank’s oldest son, Kenny, an NYU Tisch graduate, journalist, and the executive and artistic director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival for many years. Dena Kimball, Blank’s daughter and a Teach for America alumna, puts a spotlight on K-12 education. Having worked for both grassroots nonprofits and large organizations like TFA, Kimball was well-prepared to take over the reins at her mother’s Kendeda Fund. But she also serves as a director of the Blank Foundation. The foundation has also historically been a huge supporter of parks, which they call “inspiring spaces.”

Atlanta’s Westside and accelerating grantmaking

Eventually, the foundation expanded to include a focus on investing in neighborhoods on Atlanta’s Westside, a predominantly Black part of Atlanta that has deep roots in the Civil Rights Movement. “Some Civil Rights icons have their family homes here,” Twersky explained. The foundation has given away some $90 million through this grantmaking portfolio since 2007.

Arthur Blank recalled first moving to Atlanta in 1978, opening Home Depot’s first two stores on Memorial Drive and Buford Highway in the summer of 1979. The Peachtree State has grown from a population of around 5 million in 1980 to nearly 11 million today. “Atlanta has grown tremendously,” Blank said. “And that’s great in a whole lot of ways. But it also presents some challenges, and Atlanta has to continue to deal with its history.”

Through this kind of place-based giving, Blank wanted to focus on making sure those “furthest from opportunity” could access it, which is why the portfolio focuses on this part of Atlanta. The Blank Foundation made a $10 million grant in the fall of 2023 to support West Side Future Fund, focused on establishing 1,750 new units of affordable housing. This portfolio also focuses on economic inclusion, and recently made a $6.2 million grant to  Georgia Resilience & Opportunity Fund to support 200 women living on Atlanta’s Westside with guaranteed income over three years.

Arthur Blank has also looked for ways to accelerate grantmaking, regularly assessing his vast suite of businesses and investments across the NFL, MLS, PGA, and guest ranches in Montana, and choosing to ramp up foundation giving at several key points. As a signatory of the Giving Pledge, Blank has committed to give at least half of his wealth to philanthropy, but more may end up there when it’s all said and done. Blank speaks with an urgency about this, noting that societal needs may be at an all-time high both in this country and around the world.

“I’ve said publicly that at least 95% of our family estate will end up in our family foundation in one form or another,” Blank added. “Philanthropy, for me, my children and our staff, has always been important. So as these values have continued to grow, our ability to increase our philanthropy has as well.”

Taking stock and balancing voices of the next generation

Before Twersky arrived at the foundation in 2021 and Arthur Blank was looking to ramp up giving again, he convened the family so they could take stock of the grantmaking areas that they all cared about equally. Prior to that, there were issues that some family members cared about more than others. “They said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do this together, we really want to do it together,’” Twersky said.

Right now, the foundation has both family and nonfamily members on the board. The older set of children and their spouses, and the younger set, currently in their 20s, who are board members in training. Blank has six children in total. “They are going through various processes, learning about philanthropy and grantmaking, the issues that they’re working on. Over time, they will join our board,” Twersky explained. Sometimes, these younger family members sit in on meetings, but she emphasizes that there’s no pressure for them to join.

In terms of balancing all the different voices in the room, Arthur Blank says that it’s literally a round table, so he’s not sitting at the head of these convenings. “I’m the last person to speak. I’m always more interested in what the children have to say,” he said. He also knows that each family member has their own set of experiences and knowledge, and that it’s important to value them on that level. Blank’s final point seemed to extend beyond philanthropy, reflecting the viewpoint of someone who, at 81 years old, is in a new phase of life as a businessman, leader, and father, and fully embracing it.

“The children are spending more time running the foundation. So I have to make sure that the foundation is structured in a way that they’re involved, so they’re comfortable with it. As they continue to increase their own responsibilities, that means really being a really good listener to them, and understanding where they’re coming from,” Blank said.

Big Sky Country and looking ahead

In addition to its commitment to Atlanta, the Blank Foundation also engages in significant giving in Montana, where the family owns four ranches. Blank has been visiting and staying in that part of the country for decades and thinks the state embodies many of the most pressing issues today, including climate change and conservation. As the fourth-largest state in the country by land mass, but with a sparse population, it also has one of the highest rates of suicide, per capita, Blank notes. Since 2001, the foundation’s Montana work has been trying to beat back some of these statistics. In 2023, the foundation gave more than $6.5 million to Montana-serving nonprofits, including $1.7 million to support youth development and a $919,000 grant to Montana State University to develop and pilot a new one-year Hospitality Management Certificate program. The foundation also directed $500,000 toward mental health projects.

Looking back on at all, and looking ahead on what’s to come, Arthur Blank expresses gratitude. “My mother had an expression: You only pass through once, make a difference,” he said. First, Blank made his foray in business and then started giving back. He’s glad to have seen the growth of his children’s participation in philanthropy and is excited to see what they do next.

“Being in a position where I can see them grow and have their interests and philanthropy reflected in our work and an opportunity to work with them shoulder to shoulder equally… [has been] very important to me,” Blank adds.