Philanthropy journal – Human relations – Modest voice for change

By Todd Cohen

Herman Blumenthal, the Charlotte businessman and philanthropist who died Oct. 28 at age 86, quietly made a difference in North Carolina.

The son of Lithuanian parents who settled in Savannah, Ga., in the early 1900s, Blumenthal was raised as an Orthodox Jew.

In the late 1930s, he joined Radiator Specialty Co., the family’s automotive-products business headed by his brother, I.D. And in 1978, on I.D.’s death, he became head of the company and the Blumenthal Foundation, the family’s philanthropy.

The foundation contributes $2 million a year to 175 organizations focused on issues ranging from education, health and social services, to the arts, environment and Jewish causes.

Rooted in common-sense commitment to community, social justice and change, the foundation has provided diverse support – helping organizations stand on their own feet while also embracing new ideas and enterprises.

Many charities have long been frustrated because many foundations don’t like to fund operating costs, preferring to focus their dollars on projects with big profiles or promising innovative strategies.

The Blumenthal Foundation has bucked that trend, opting instead to help nonprofits cover the cost of doing business, and often has provided operating support for the same nonprofits over many years.

In addition to providing critical operating support, the foundation has invested heavily in projects in Charlotte and throughout the state.

The heart of that approach is based on the belief that change flows more easily in a world in which people respect and understand one another, and look for ways to work together.

To help people learn to get along better, the Blumenthal family created the Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland near Boone, and the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Research Triangle Park.

Countless groups have used the retreat to learn about one another and think out loud together.

And dozens of leaders throughout the state have become part of the initiative’s growing network that aims to strengthen their role in working together to find solutions to problems we face in common.

The Blumenthal name also graces a wide variety of projects – from a cancer center and performing arts center in Charlotte to a chair in American Jewish studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In a famous essay, philosopher Isaiah Berlin compressed competing visions of the world in the characters of a hedgehog and fox.

Quoting a Greek poet, Berlin said the fox “knows many things,” while the hedgehog “knows one big thing.”

Herman Blumenthal was a catalyst for change by practicing a diverse philanthropy rooted in the idea of improving society by strengthening the connections that tie people to one another.

He recognized that a broad range of individuals, groups and ideas are needed to shape and build the future.

And he understood that charities face a wide variety of needs — from paying bills and constructing buildings to training leaders, helping people work together and finding new ways to tackle our toughest problems.

Through his low-key and open-minded philanthropy, Herman Blumenthal helped North Carolinians from all walks of life work on many fronts to make change happen.

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