Effective Family Philanthropy: The Pérez Family

The Pérez Family, Courtesy of TAMZ

“Miami Is Our City.” How Two Generations of the Billionaire Pérez Family Give

Back in the late 1970s, Argentina-raised Jorge Pérez linked up with Stephen Ross and his affiliated Related Companies, the developer of New York City’s Hudson Yards. The Related Group, founded in 1979, began with a focus on building affordable housing before branching out to high-end condos. And branch out it did. Today, the Florida-headquartered company has built and managed over 100,000 condo and apartment residences, including the St. Regis Residences in Miami, SLS Marina Beach in Cancun and V:House in São Paulo.

Still running strong as chairman and CEO of Related Group, Jorge Pérez, 73, is currently worth $1.7 billion. He and his wife Darlene signed the Giving Pledge in 2012. The most prominent mark of the family’s giving is Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), a modern and contemporary art museum dedicated to collecting and exhibiting international art. Jorge Pérez gifted the museum cash and artworks totaling about $40 million in 2011 and has continued to support the museum since.

But Pérez family philanthropy extends far beyond that. Through the Jorge M. Pérez Family Foundation and personal donations from Jorge and Darlene, the family has given away more than $214 million to organizations focused on arts and culture, health and wellbeing, education, the environment, and economic development.

The Pérez family is reminiscent of other wealthy families we’ve profiled in that their giving is multigenerational. In many cases, it’s the next generation (or generations) who introduce new directions to a family’s giving.

But how has that evolution occurred for the Pérez family? And what should we expect going forward? I recently connected with Jorge and Darlene Pérez, as well as the couple’s children, to find out more. In these conversations, I learned more about what inspired Jorge and Darlene to sign the Giving Pledge, why they started a family foundation, how the next generation became involved, and the family’s impact in Miami and beyond.

Formative experiences in Latin America

A son of parents exiled from Cuba, Jorge Pérez grew up in the 1950s in Buenos Aires before moving to Bogota, Colombia, where his parents ran a pharmaceutical company. These early experiences still loom large in Pérez’s personal story.

“I grew up in South America. My parents lost all their money in Cuba. They were a wealthy family, but Castro’s revolution came. In spite of that, my mother and father were very pro-egalitarian. They continued to preach to me that societies could not subsist over periods of time with such huge inequality,” Perez told me.

He recalls traveling from his privileged neighborhood in Bogota up to his high school in the hills. “You would go from passing multimillion-dollar homes to actual shacks without running water and electricity,” he said. Even as a teenager, Pérez said those experiences stayed with him. At that time, the self-described hippie and revolutionary never planned on striking it big in the real estate business.

When Pérez came to the United States, he studied economics at C.W. Post College and urban planning at the University of Michigan. He worked for two years as a city planner with the aim of improving lower-income communities. But he soon caught the real-estate bug and began developing public housing projects in underserved communities like Miami’s Little Havana. And as Pérez shifted to big-time condominium building, those formative experiences stayed with him.

“I started giving very early on. Smaller amounts. Doing things so that I could provide housing for the poor,” Pérez said.

Signing the Giving Pledge and starting a foundation

The stories of how each of the nearly 250 signatories of the Giving Pledge joined that community are always slightly different. For Pérez, the story begins with a dinner, where the real estate mogul met Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. At the time, no Latino or Black Americans had signed the Giving Pledge, and Pérez felt inspired to join so that he could galvanize others to sign, as well.

“I am truly one of the lucky ones. But most people, both in the United States and around the world, do not get the opportunities that were presented to me,” wrote Pérez in his Giving Pledge letter, which he signed with Darlene in 2012.

Soon after, in 2015, the couple launched the Jorge M. Pérez Family Foundation — a donor-advised fund at the  Miami Foundation. The Pérez Foundation aims to promote sustainable, inclusive, just communities that include health and wellbeing, education, environment and economic development.

Darlene Pérez, a veteran nurse practitioner, said her No. 1 focus has always been healthcare. “In the family foundation, I focus on that area of giving: healthcare, mental health, the disabled and the elderly. I also focus on arts education and how healthcare also plays a role,” she said.

In 2006, the couple made a significant donation to Florida International University’s Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences, creating the Jorge M. and Darlene M. Pérez Nursing Laboratory. Darlene is an FIU alumna.

Jorge Pérez is also a prominent art collector, and has acquired more than 2,000 works by contemporary and modern artists, including Roberto Matta, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. His collection places an emphasis on Latin American art.

“My big thing has always been art and the arts,” he said. “When the economic cycle turns down, the arts get beat up. People start giving much more to what they consider greater needs. But I’ve always felt that those things feed the stomach. Arts feeds the soul.”

When Pérez was a board member of the National Endowment for the Arts, every study he saw about young children showed that youth exposed to the arts at an early age did much better academically, and much better in life overall.

“I am surrounded by art. It enhances my wellbeing, and that of Darlene. And I do not want to limit that to the wealthy,” he said.

Jorge said the family’s arts philanthropy focuses not just on the object, but on giving artists a chance to succeed. More recently, he’s branched out from Latin American art and found an interesting kinship with African diaspora art. In fact, his Yinka Shonibare collection loomed behind him and Darlene throughout our Zoom call.

Jorge first visited the African continent in 2013 and has since gone back several times, developing ties and connections with local galleries and artists in South Africa and beyond. At his private museum El Espacio 23, he hosted an exhibition curated by Zimbabwe-born Tandazani Dhlakam titled “Witness: Afro Perspectives from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection.”

But Jorge remains active as a collector and donor of Latin American art, as well. In late 2022, for instance, he donated a monumental sculpture by Colombian artist Fernando Botero to the Tampa Art Museum, along with a $1 million cash gift.

Bringing in the second generation

Jorge and Darlene Pérez’s four children are all becoming involved with the family’s philanthropy. We spoke to three of them, sons Jon Paul “JP” and Nicholas “Nicky,” and daughter Christina. JP and Nicky serve respectively as president and senior vice president of Related Group, right under their father. Christina holds a doctorate in social work from USC, and is the most involved in the family foundation so far.

All the Pérez children recall the model their parents set forth for them. “My parents always showed us the importance of giving back. When you have wealth, you have the responsibility to help others,” Christina said. Circa 2017, Nicky, then living in New York City, flew down to Florida for a meeting with the rest of the family. “We kind of just sat for three hours in the living room, talking strategy and how we could make the biggest impact,” Nicky said. “It was a communal forming, but led by our father.”

This conversation was aided by the Miami Foundation and consultants who helped the family formalize their giving and figure out how to give effectively in the community. The family did not have to go the community foundation, donor-advised-fund route, but all three children agreed that the Miami Foundation has been critical to helping the family better understand community needs and find charities efficiently.

Christina also mentioned the value of data, both on the front end in terms of understanding needs, but also on the back end, in terms of measuring impact. “We hear the stories of the impact our money. And that’s been really incredible,” she said.

Each Pérez sibling focuses on a different philanthropic bucket. For Nicky and his wife Kastyn, that’s environmental sustainability, in part because they have children of their own, which got them thinking about the future impact of climate change. Nicky talks about protecting the Everglades and sea life in Biscayne Bay. One charity he’s proud to support is Miami Waterkeeper, which works toward a vision of swimmable, drinkable and fishable water for all. A lifelong animal lover, he also supports Paws4You.

Christina helps support the foundation’s education investments. A caseworker for several years, she’s always been passionate about underserved children and foster youth. She serves on the board of Voices for Children, which supports the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program to safeguard children in foster care in dependency court proceedings. “We really help with all the foster kids. But some of us focus on aging out children and connecting them with the arts,” Christina said. “Our dad always instilled in us that education is the only thing that no one can take away from you.” (Jorge Pérez, by the way, once had a stint as an elementary school teacher.)

JP says most of his bandwidth is still focused on the family business. But on the philanthropic side, he has focused on economic development. He also sits on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters Miami and is an active United Way Young Leader. “I want to invest in the community and give opportunities to the less fortunate so that they can thrive,” JP said.

The fourth Pérez child, Felipe, who was not on the call, is still a teenager. He is the founding president of Gulliver’s Generation S.O.S., a nonprofit empowering youth to help their peers make informed choices about substance abuse.

Weighing different voices and foundation grantmaking

One question that often comes up in stories of family philanthropy is how the many voices in the room get to weigh in on decisions about where the money goes. “Somebody gave me a picture and said, ‘Jorge, here’s your board of directors.’ It was five different faces of Jorge Pérez with different suits on,” Jorge said. But Darlene quickly clarified that all voices are definitely heard, and the second generation agreed.

“We’re always open to hearing each others’ thoughts,” Christina said. So far, Nicky is the only member of the second generation with children. But the Pérez siblings all agreed that they hope to pass on the same tradition of giving.

Joining the family in their philanthropic work is Belissa Alvarez, who serves as both director of the Jorge M. Pérez Family Foundation and of Related Philanthropic Foundation, Related Group’s philanthropic arm, which allocates 2% of the company’s profits to philanthropy. Alvarez has been in these roles for more than four years now. Prior to that, she was chief business development officer of Miami Children’s Museum and worked in corporate social responsibility for Burger King.

“The great thing about working with Jorge and his family is that whether it’s the corporate foundation or the family foundation, it’s all the Pérez family,” Alvarez said.

On the corporate side, grantmaking focuses on supporting the communities where the company builds, connecting with local stakeholders to understand social and economic needs in the area.

And on the family foundation side, Alvarez said it’s all about fully engaging with partners. “We don’t believe in transactional giving. We really come to the table wanting to be all-in and meet partners where they are. And we really bet on strong leaders.” She also echoed the value of the foundation’s partnership with the Miami Foundation, calling them their “think partner.”

In 2019, the Jorge M. Pérez Family Foundation launched CreARTE Grants Program, which has invested more than $5 million in Miami-Dade organizations working to cultivate Miami’s arts ecosystem. Through this grants program, the foundation has supported artist fellowships and residences at places like Bakehouse Art Complex and HistoryMiami Museum, arts access at Bootleggers Library, and arts education at Miami City Ballet, Young Musicians United and many more.

“We’ve been able to really fill a funding gap that existed in arts education — which is the biggest category we fund within the program. And we’re currently getting ready to launch the third iteration of the program this spring,” Alvarez said.

Another longtime initiative, Together For Children, addresses the root causes of youth violence. Recently, the initiative was adopted by Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava as part of her overall vision to address youth violence. “It’s a good example of a model that we piloted. We didn’t know how it was going to pan out. But we’re proud that we invested early on,” Alvarez said.

Miami impact and looking ahead

Rebecca Fishman Lipsey, CEO of the Miami Foundation, first came out to the Magic City a decade and a half ago. She says that one of her first moves when she started at the foundation was to call up the Pérez family. Lipsey is particularly impressed by the family’s work with Miami Foundation’s Racial Equity Fund, as well as in disaster relief. “Anytime there is something emerging, when we need to put out a bat signal to the community, they are always first to step up.” Lipsey said.

The Sunshine State is known for its tourism and seasonal visitors. And during the height of COVID, Lipsey said South Florida saw an influx of people from California, Chicago and New York. One of her questions early on was whether this new population would actually make Miami a focus for their giving. But she is encouraged that she can always point to the Pérez family as an example of laser-focused and consistent giving in South Florida.

“I had a family foundation meeting with them the other week,” Lipsey said. “I told them I felt it was really important that we shine a spotlight on how they are giving. I just think it’s very important right now in Miami with the amount of wealth that has come here. And I am glad I’m seeing these newer families step up.”

The Pérez family’s philanthropic journey has been meaningful in other ways, too.

“There were no large public institutions in this country that had the name of a Hispanic until the Pérez Art Museum. So it was very important to me to create that type of legacy,” Jorge Pérez said. “We as Hispanics, as minorities, really are givers. I don’t really want to be known as the guy that built a thousand buildings. I’d much rather be known as somebody that cared about society and gave back and created a family tradition of giving.”