NEW YORK (Reuters) – (The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Some people are so famous that you know them by their first names – Cher, Madonna … and Craig.
That’s the guy who founded Craigslist.org, the booming international online classifieds website that has enabled the self-professed “old-school nerd” to retire from computer programming to become a philanthropist.
Craig Newmark is worth over $3 billion, according to Forbes, money that the 65-year-old is much more interested in giving away than splurging on himself.
Newmark, whose causes include media integrity, recently donated $20 million gift to the Graduate Journalism Program at the City University of New York (CUNY), which will henceforth bear his name.
For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, Newmark spoke about his refreshing life take: In a society focused on acquiring more, we need to know when “enough is enough.”
Q: You were a Jersey boy growing up. Who left a lasting impression on you from those days?
A: My Sunday school and Hebrew teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Levin. They were Holocaust survivors, and I learned a lot from them, even if I didn’t quite get it at the time: Treat people like you would want to be treated. That got drilled into me pretty deep.
Q: When your dad passed away when you were young, was it tough financially for the family?
A: Very much so. I was glad he got to see me bar mitzvah’d, but when he passed, things got pretty difficult. We were somewhere between poor and middle class. I have a distinct memory of my mom breaking into a stack of silver dollars in order to pay for the groceries.
Q: At what point did you realize Craigslist was taking off?
A: At the end of ‘97, we hit a million page views a month. At the time, that was a really big deal. Eventually people told me I had to make a real company, and they were right. Along the way I got some bad advice and made some immense blunders.
Q: When you became wealthy, how did you handle that?
A: I didn’t cash in quite as much as people think. But for me, the idea of doing well by doing good has always worked out. There is nothing altruistic about it – but from Mr. and Mrs. Levin, I learned how much is enough. So since I now have more than I want, I am able to give it away in substantial numbers.
Right now I am looking at two areas to focus on: First on internet technology and Net neutrality, and second on voter protections. I figure out the things that matter to me, and then I find people who are really good at doing that, and I help them out.
Q: What kind of investor are you?
A: I have always been into capital preservation, which dates back to the ‘70s when I was a doctrinaire libertarian, and wanted to guard against major inflation. So most of my money is just in municipal bonds. I don’t like fancy cars or anything like that; I don’t even own a car.
I have invested in startups three times, and each time it ended badly. One was in bioinformatics, and that didn’t work out. The next was a journalism thing, and the third was something for book readers, both of which failed. That was no fun.
Q: What is your philanthropic strategy?
A: It’s not very methodical, so any professional fundraiser might start cringing. But I have an idea of what matters to me, and what feels right to support. Good journalism, for instance, underpins everything in a democracy.
I also have a theme to protect the present and future of the country, which is why I support veterans and their families, in particular their kids’ education. And sometimes I even contribute on a whim, like pigeon rescue. I love birds. I’m pretty eccentric, as you can tell.
Q: Since you have a passion for writing, whose works have influenced you the most?
A: I consider Leonard Cohen my rabbi. He is probably the biggest influence in my adult life. Songs like “Democracy” and “Anthem.” A lot of people think of him as a poet of despair, but for me he is a source of hope. He was like an Old Testament prophet. But when he entered a Zen monastery his name was ‘Silent One,’ so I guess monks have a sense of humor.
Q: What life lessons do you try to pass along to others?
A: Somewhere in Hebrew school, I learned that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. In other words, instead of complaining about something, it is better to help fix it.
Editing by Beth Pinsker and Richard Chang