News and analysis
February 06, 2011

No. 18: Charles E. Kaufman

Charles E. Kaufman

Amount donated in 2010: $53.3-million

Biggest beneficiary: the Pittsburgh Foundation

Donor’s background: Mr. Kaufman was an investor and retired director of purchasing for the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Company.

 Mr. Kaufman, who died in September at the age of 97, bequeathed an estimated $50-million to the Pittsburgh Foundation. Most of the gift, between $35-million and $40-million, will go to a fund he established at the foundation in 2005, the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation. The fund supports research in biology, chemistry, and physics and supports awards “for achievement in and contribution to the field and humanity,” according to its mission statement. It was created with $1.5-million from Mr. Kaufman and has since given three awards of $50,000 each to researchers. The remainder of the bequest will go to a donor-advised fund Mr. Kaufman established in 1984 with his late sister, Virginia, that supports causes in Jewish health care, land conservation, programs for older adults, and public education.

He made his fortune late in life and said he wanted to earn enough to give a lot away. According to his lawyer and the executor of his estate, Wendy Denton Heleen, he made savvy investments in the stock market and several drug and science enterprises after he retired from his position at ­Merck.

Additionally, Mr. Kaufman left $3,340,000 to 25 charities across the nation, including organizations that focus on the environment, Jewish life and culture, social services, and higher education. They include $1-million to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in Pittsburgh; $300,000 to Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh; $50,000 to the International Rescue Committee, in New York; $50,000 to the Jewish National Fund, in New York; $50,000 to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in Irving, Tex.; and $30,000 to American Forests, in Washington.

At the age of 92, Mr. Kaufman learned how to use a computer. While online, he came across the Welch Foundation, a grant maker in Houston that supports chemical research at educational institutions in Texas. Drawing inspiration from the foundation, Mr. Kaufman called Ms. Heleen to formulate his philanthropic plans.

Ms. Heleen says he often talked about being a child of the Depression. Modest in both his temperament and way of life, few people knew of Mr. Kaufman’s wealth. Only in his later years did the Pittsburgh Foundation have an inkling as to the amount of money it was going to receive from him.

A lifelong bachelor with no children, Mr. Kaufman lived for most of his life in the South Hills suburbs of Pittsburgh, much of the time with his sister. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Cincinnati in 1936 and a master’s degree in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon in 1942.

While in graduate school, he worked as a chemical engineer at the Hagan Corporation, in Pittsburgh, which eventually became the Calgon Corporation and, later, Merck. Indeed, it was his education and career that guided his investment strategies, which involved putting money into companies at the forefront of cutting-edge scientific research.

Ms. Heleen says Mr. Kaufman greatly hoped that his research fund would help someone win a Nobel Prize and would speak of that desire with a tear in his eye. In 2008, when he presented the first $50,000 award to a Carnegie Mellon professor for work in green chemistry, Mr. Kaufman said, “I can accomplish more through others than I ever could myself.”

—Caroline Bermudez

View more profiles of donors who gave the most in 2010.