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In Conversation With Marc Pollick

Ranjani Saigal

After graduating from the University of Chicago, Pollick pursued his doctoral studies in Holocaust Studies at Boston University under the direction of Professor Elie Wiesel, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. In 1982, Pollick was appointed Founding Executive Director of the Zachor Institute for Holocaust Studies in Miami, Florida. One year later, he created and hosted the cable television series, “We Remember.” He also served as the Assistant Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University, and founded The Elie Wiesel Institute for Humanitarian Studies. 

Working with Wiesel, Pollick came to appreciate the unique power and opportunity inherent in leveraging celebrity and wealth on behalf of philanthropy. He formulated the idea for an organization that would work with celebrities to use their fame for the common good, and in 1997 established The Giving Back Fund (GBF) to provide philanthropic management and consulting to professional athletes and entertainers. Because of its unique focus on athletes and celebrities, GBF has expanded and diversified philanthropy in important ways, creating new donor pools that are often underrepresented in traditional philanthropy, such as people of color, women, and youth. GBF has managed the foundations of more than 200 high-profile clients, from sports legends including Yao Ming, Roy Halladay, Ben Roethlisberger, and Doug Flutie, to entertainment stars Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Maria Bello. Through GBF, such foundations have granted more than $40 million to charities around the world by leveraging the power of celebrity to achieve social good. While GBF has special expertise in the area of celebrity philanthropy, it has branched out in recent years to provide philanthropic consulting and management to high-net worth individuals of all backgrounds, business entrepreneurs and corporations. 

Mr. Pollick was recently recognized for his achievements as a recipient of the University of Chicago Alumni Award for Public Service. Upon receiving the award, he commented: “For me, the University of Chicago was not just a college. It was the impetus for a radical shift in my life’s direction. Every assumption I had prior to arriving in Hyde Park was challenged—from what is important in life, to what constitutes an educated person. As an undergraduate, I discovered role models who would become lifelong heroes—in the persons of Jonathan Kozol, Jesse Owens (who tutored me in the long jump!), Rabbi Harold Kushner, and Elie Wiesel. I learned not only how to think, but how to employ that thought process to produce significant actions. I vividly remember coming to college as a freshman knowing that I wanted to change the world but not having a clue where to start. Without a doubt, the relationships I developed at UC and the influences I absorbed have directly equipped and enabled me to fulfill my freshman goal of wanting to make the world a bit better. I was profoundly altered by my UC education—in the classroom, on the athletic field, and in the dorms. The Giving Back Fund is the professional manifestation of that treasured experience.” Mr. Pollick contributes frequently to major periodicals on the topic of philanthropy and writes a regular column on sports philanthropy for Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal. 

Why did you decide to pursue a teaching career in Holocaust Studies? 
I went into Holocaust Studies to try tomake the world a better place. I thought if you taught people about the worst that human beings could do, then they would want to do the opposite.  

What made you change your career and go into philanthropy?

I was very disappointed that genocides kept happening all around the world. My problem  was that no one who committed genocide ever took my course. I realized that I was not having the impact in the way I wanted. When I could not stop the bad I decided to work on increasing the good. I approached Elie Wiesel and asked to use his name to create a foundation for human rights. His name helped open doors and the foundation had great impact.

How did the idea for The Giving Back Fund emerge? 

The idea came from the work that Paul Newman did in leveraging his fame for the common good.  Newman’s Own has raised more than $550 million for charity from all the products they sell like popcorn and salad dressing. Most kids today don’t even know Paul Newman as a famous actor; they think he is the guy on the lemonade carton!  Using that model, GBF has raised over 40 million dollars for a wide range of causes. 

Could you describe the services your organization provides?

We provide philanthropic consulting and management services to individuals, families, corporations, and nonprofit organizations.  The Giving Back Fund was a pioneer in recognizing the potential of leveraging the power of celebrity to benefit a charitable cause.  Based on our success with celebrities, the Giving Back Fund expanded to offer our services to other high net worth individuals and corporations who are committed to making a positive impact in their communities.     

Whether people are looking to establish a new charitable entity, have already established one, or simply want assistance with deciding where to give their charitable dollars, The Giving Back Fund can help.
Can you give us some impact stories?

One of the first athletes we worked with was Doug Flutie. He had interest in supporting autism. We worked to create Flutie Flakes, with his face on a cereal box. More importantly, on the side of the box there was information about autism. The effort helped raise over 3 million dollars. 

We worked with Jamie Lynn Sigler to create a bracelet that was sold at Claires. Did you know that eating disorders are the number one killer of girls between the ages of 6-14 in the US? This was a cause we targeted and it had great impact. 

Why should people give money to philanthropy? Do celebrities who use their name to promote causes also give money to causes? 

Giving increases your endorphins making for a healthy life. When you help others you feel good. We always strongly encourage celebrities to give money along with lending their name for otherwise it will be inauthentic. 

What is the statistics with giving in the US? 

That national average is 2.3%. I would like to see it go up to 2.4% for then we would have millions more available. Giving is a skill learned at home. People who come from homes where they have learned to give will continue to do so. 

It is exciting to see so many very wealthy people sign onto the “Giving Pledge” initiated by Bill and Melinda Gates that makes them pledge to give 50% of their wealth in charity. 

Why should people consider starting their own charitable foundation? 

If there is a cause that one cares about and there is no other foundation that caters to the cause one should start a foundation.  We never encourage starting a foundation if there is another foundation that addresses the same cause. 

Do you have any special message for South Asians ?

We would love to work with anyone in the South Asian community who has interest in Philanthropy. We are working with young people from India and other countries as part of the Nexus Global Youth Summit. This is a group of young leaders who are looking for creative ways to solve the world’s problems.  We are looking to expand to India, China and other countries. 

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