H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest often says, “A life can be transformed by access to a job.”
Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest believe in the well-known saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Through gifts of over $1.3 billion to more than 1,100 organizations, they personally and their Lenfest Foundation have supported causes ranging from the arts to environmental programs to independent journalism. But their highest priority has always been to build self-sufficiency through education.
Gerry and Marguerite’s life experiences have influenced the fundamental principles that guide their philanthropy. Gerry believes the discipline and structure of Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, helped him navigate difficult times and provided him with the education and skills to be accepted at Washington and Lee University and Columbia Law School. He also credits his personal and professional growth to his service in the US Navy and his twenty-four years in the Navy Reserve.
Marguerite (née Brooks) also credits her independence and prosperity to education. She graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls and Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The Lenfests married in July 1955 and moved to New York City, where Gerry attended law school and Marguerite worked as an elementary school teacher on Long Island and in Manhattan.
After receiving his law degree, Gerry practiced at the New York firm of Davis Polk. In 1965, the couple moved to Philadelphia when Gerry accepted a position as associate counsel at Walter Annenberg’s Triangle Publications. After five years, Gerry became editorial director and publisher of Seventeen magazine and president of the company’s cable division. In 1974, Gerry purchased two cable companies from Walter Annenberg—Suburban and Lebanon Valley— with two partners, and launched Lenfest Communications.
By the end of the 1990s, the cable company had more than 1.2 million subscribers and had become the region’s largest cable operator. In January 2000, the Lenfest family sold Lenfest Communications to the Comcast Corporation.
In the same year, the Lenfests decided to devote their time and energy to philanthropy. Gerry and Marguerite agreed to dedicate the majority of their wealth to causes connected to their core values and to support institutions and issues they viewed as critical to the future of the region they love. The Lenfests’ three adult children also created charitable foundations and will continue the Lenfest giving legacy in the future.
The priority of education has guided the work of the Lenfest Foundation since its inception. One of its first significant initiatives was the Lenfest College Scholarship Program, which now awards twenty-four scholarships annually to high-performing students from rural areas of Pennsylvania. These students are attending most academically challenging colleges and universities in the United States and many are the first in their families to go to college. In 2014, the Lenfests created and endowed the Lenfest Scholars Foundation to ensure that this program will continue in perpetuity.
In 2011, the Lenfest Foundation Board of Directors revised its mission to focus on disadvantaged youth in the Philadelphia area. Through a multiyear planning process, the foundation determined that it could have the greatest impact in workforce development and career pathways, out-of-school time programs for middle school students and early learning. The foundation intends to accomplish its work over a fifteen-year period.
This youth development strategy in Philadelphia has become the Lenfest Foundation’s new trademark and will continue to shape the Lenfest legacy of helping people help themselves in the years ahead.