Giving Large

Plenty of mega-rich philanthropists are happy just writing checks. But Myra Kraft is forging a whole new form of engaged giving. (And she also finally dishes on how Vladimir Putin pocketed her husband's Super Bowl ring.)

(Photo by Matt Kalinowski)
By Michael Paulson
March 19, 2007

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

The cherry-paneled boardroom of Combined Jewish Philanthropies is humming. Many of the most powerful and influential members of Boston’s Jewish community are gathered to discuss the goals of CJP, a nonprofit that distributed $71 million last year. Four sleek black speakerphones flash green lights as disembodied voices jump in and out of the conversation. Myra Hiatt Kraft, a pair of spectacles dangling from her teeth, is sitting at the center of the action, in the familiar position of chairwoman of the board.

When the conversation turns to a hypothetical discussion of reducing CJP’s outreach to non-Jews as a way of streamlining the organization’s ambitions, Kraft, chairwoman since September, speaks. “This is a very important issue,” she says. “We live in this community. We’re Jewish, and most of the world isn’t. I don’t see how you can just summarily say, ‘Let’s lop one of these off.’ ” Instead, she suggests, CJP should pursue a new alliance with United Way and Catholic Charities, two other philanthropies with an interest in the disadvantaged. Outreach stays.

Myra Kraft is best known as the wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and she has enough money and friendships to be almost anywhere, but day after day, she immerses herself in the mundane business of overseeing nonprofits in Boston. By shaping strategic plans and raising huge amounts of money, often making the hat-in-hand phone calls that many of her super-rich peers avoid, Myra Kraft is modeling a new form of engaged giving that is transforming the relationship between philanthropist and philanthropy.

“It’s easy to write a check,” she says. “But this is what I look at as what my occupation is. I don’t know how to play bridge, nor do I want to learn how to play bridge. This is what I do.”

Within local Jewish community organizations, Kraft is ubiquitous. In addition to CJP, she sits on the boards of Brandeis University, the international relief-focused American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Facing History and Ourselves, a Holocaust education organization. But she is perhaps best known within the larger philanthropic world for her six years, from 1996 to 2002, as chairwoman of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, a tenure so successful that the clubs waived the term limit for her. Last year, she joined the board of the Boston Foundation, New England’s largest public foundation, and she is on the boards of United Way of Massachusetts Bay, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the American Repertory Theatre.

She and her husband are worth an estimated $1.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine, making them the 297th wealthiest family in America. In the last four decades, the Krafts have given away more than $100 million, and the pace of their giving is speeding up. Asked why, Myra Kraft is blunt: “There’s more resources.” In addition to her board work, she manages two foundations, the Robert and Myra Kraft Family Foundation, which had $37 million in assets at the end of 2005, and the team’s New England Patriots Charitable Foundation, which had $2 million.

But what’s remarkable about Kraft is the way she manages the money coming out of the foundations. Philanthropy is in the midst of transformation, as wealthy donors seek to exert more influence over the organizations they support, to bring their business skills and personal interests as well as their checkbooks to nonprofits. Kraft, at 64, is one of the pioneers. “She is an unusual actor in Boston for two reasons: First, the kinds of community-based organizations that she has devoted herself to are not typical for many people who come out of wealth; and second is the way she has applied herself, not just her funding, to play a real moral leadership role that is admirable and too often missing in Boston,” says H. Peter Karoff, chairman of Philanthropic Initiative Inc., a Boston-based organization that advises wealthy donors. “Most substantial donors are drawn to establishment kinds of organizations and institutions, which is why the MFA has been so successful in its capital campaign, and why the symphony has done so well, and why Harvard continues to knock your socks off with its fund-raising,” says Karoff. “Fewer reach into the more complicated, systemic needs that we have.”

Kraft loves and knows the establishment institutions. Her husband was a Boston Symphony Orchestra overseer, she calls the symphony her favorite cultural institution, and she treasures the two symphony seats her parents had that she now holds – as well as the two next to them. But neither the symphony nor ART is a top priority. “A lot more people become involved in the fine arts than social services,” she says. “I’m not denigrating. I love symphony, and I think Malcolm Rogers is doing a great job at the MFA. But they’re fine.”

She says her formula is simple. The family foundation gives lots of small-dollar contributions to medical, educational, and arts organizations, as well as numerous Jewish groups; the Patriots foundation gives more broadly, to a huge array of youth sports organizations, Catholic schools, and programs for at-risk children. Kraft looks for “good programs – like the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy, that’s an excellent program, and schools like Mother Caroline Academy,” a private Catholic school. (The Krafts’ alma maters have also benefited substantially – Columbia University and Harvard Business School, where he studied on scholarships, and Brandeis, which she attended.)“I’m not looking for earth-shattering ideas,” Kraft says, “but good programs that you know whatever you give them is going to be used well, and that it’s needed.”

Myra Hiatt and Robert Kraft were still undergraduates when they met at the old Ken’s at Copley, a Back Bay delicatessen, on February 2, 1962. She was a Brandeis sophomore out on a date. He was a Columbia junior out drinking with a bunch of football buddies after a Columbia-Harvard basketball game. “We wound up sitting next to her in this restaurant, “ Robert Kraft tells me in a phone call from his jet. “I had this big guy, Moose, find out her name, and then when she got up to leave, I winked at her, and she winked back.” Kraft had one day left before he had to return to school in New York, so he used that day to drive out to Waltham to try to track Myra down at Brandeis. A student there led Kraft to a library where Myra was studying. He asked her out. She declined, saying she had a date with her boyfriend, but he insisted. “We wound up going out, and she proposed that night,” he says. They married in June 1963, and their first son was born while she was still an undergraduate.

After Harvard Business School, Robert Kraft went to work for his father-in-law, Jacob Hiatt. Kraft ultimately took over Hiatt’s packaging company, founded International Forest Products, and in 1988 pulled together the family’s holdings into the Kraft Group, which Forbes lists as having 5,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenues. In 1994, he spent the most money ever paid for a sports franchise to buy the New England Patriots, then the worst team in professional football. Under his stewardship, the once-ridiculed team won its first, second, and third Super Bowls.

Myra Kraft finished college and raised four sons, and, as she has repeatedly confessed, did not become a football fan, despite the exhortations of the men in her family. “I always thought it was just a very physical, brutal sport,” she says. After the Patriots purchase, seeing a lifetime of miserable Sundays ahead of her, Kraft set about teaching herself the rules of the game. She had to, she says, because her family had given up. “The first game was Labor Day weekend, in Miami, 1994, and I couldn’t figure out why I was leaving Cape Cod to go to Miami Labor Day weekend,” she recalls. “And the first play was over, and I turned to my four sons and my husband and started to ask them a question, and they turned to me and they said, ‘Myra, shut up, because we pleaded with you, we begged you for years to come, and now you’ve got to learn it on your own.’ ” She did learn, by watching, but Kraft is also an inveterate reader. In our first meeting, she could not stop talking about The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis, a detailed examination of a single position in football – hardly a book for the non-fan. “It’s a brilliant, an amazing sport,” she says.

Kraft says that when her husband bought the Patriots, “my greatest concern was ‘Don’t tell me we can’t [give] philanthropically because you just spent – borrowed and spent – so much money to buy the team.’ And he said, ‘It’s a deal.’ ”

In fact, Myra Kraft says, the acquisition of the Patriots has made her charity work easier – not because it made the family wealthier, although it did that. “The first year that we were going to the Super Bowl, in ’96, and we lost, but it was before the Boys & Girls Club dinner, which is the beginning of February, and people returned my calls so quickly, because they wanted tickets, and I also pushed for higher levels of giving for that dinner. It was pretty powerful.” She has even managed to mesh her philanthropic interests in Israel with football, sponsoring a start-up women’s flag football team in Jerusalem in addition to the men’s league she and her husband support.

Kraft’s wealth, and her commitment to philanthropy, started with her family. Her father, Jacob Hiatt, was raised in Lithuania and moved in 1935 to the United States, where two brothers were already living. His parents and multiple other family members who stayed behind were killed in the Holocaust. Hiatt started out making boxes for his brother Al’s shoe company (Al’s son, Arnold, wound up running the Stride Rite Corp.). He then got a job at the E.F. Dodge Paper Box Corp. in Leominster, and by 1938 was the company president. Hiatt remained when Dodge was acquired by Whitney Box of Worcester to form a company that is now the Rand-Whitney Group, and he became a wealthy man and a major figure in Worcester philanthropy. “She grew up in a house with very deep Jewish values, where her father was enormously grateful for the benefits America had extended to him, and she really sees herself carrying forward those values,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis.

Her first philanthropic memory is directly tied to the aftermath of the Holocaust. In 1948, her father visited the displaced-persons camps of Europe and went to Palestine, then on the verge of Israeli nationhood. And while he was away, Myra, all of age 5, decided to do something to help. As she recalls it, she didn’t tell her mother, but just disappeared one day in the hours before her afternoon kindergarten was scheduled to begin. “I went door to door in my neighborhood, and I asked people to help the poor children in Europe in the displaced-persons camps,” she says. “My mother got a little frantic until the neighbors started calling. It was just part of the way I grew up, I think.”

Jacob Hiatt often made contributions to institutions that would foster interfaith relations, a response to the anti-Semitism that drove the Holocaust. The Rev. John E. Brooks, who served as president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester from 1970 to 1994 and who often joined the Hiatt family for Passover celebrations, remembers the 1979 dedication of a library wing Hiatt funded at Holy Cross and dedicated to the memory of his parents. Elie Wiesel spoke. “Everyone went quiet,” Brooks recalls. “It was a celebratory event, but it was almost like a church service.” Hiatt and the Krafts went on to endow a pair of academic positions – the Kraft-Hiatt chair in Christian studies at Brandeis and the Kraft-Hiatt chair in Judaic studies at Holy Cross in 1990. Jacob Hiatt died in 2001. In 2002, Robert and Myra Kraft gave $2 million to endow a chair in Christian studies at Boston College after real estate developer John M. Corcoran established the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning there.

For all her commitment to Israel and Jewish causes, Kraft says her philanthropic impulse, and her interests, are motivated by culture, not religion. “I’m not a religious person, and my father wasn’t really religious,” she says. “It’s not religion, it’s people-hood.” Then she gives the response of someone deeply affected by the Holocaust: “If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one is going to take care of us.”

In Kraft’s own life, interfaith relations are played out on a personal level. A number of years ago, she met a Tennessee televangelist named Perry Stone Jr., somewhat improbably, through a tour guide in Israel who had noted their shared interests in football and Israel. Now they talk by phone every few months, mostly about politics. Kraft has also encountered evangelical Christianity through Patriots players and has come away impressed. “I know that the guys on our team that are Christians – and I mean evangelical – that they have great families, and I’m not saying that there are others that aren’t, but I’m just saying that it’s a good thing,” she says. “When [Patriot linebacker] Junior Seau really was badly injured, the guys on our team, all immediately, all of them made a prayer circle, and every guy on the Chicago team came over, and it was probably one of the most moving things I think I’ve seen in the 13 seasons.”

But it’s not all prayer circles and peace in her world. Kraft is a woman of strong passions and lifelong commitments who is unafraid to speak her mind. “She’s straight with people, and she’ll tell you what time of day it is,” says Albert Sherman, a vice chancellor of UMass Medical School, who has known the Krafts since they were dating.

In conversation, Myra Kraft is remarkably direct about a variety of subjects – her wealth, the Middle East, Boston, and even her version of how Vladimir Putin wound up with one of her husband’s diamond-studded Super Bowl rings. Putin caused a bit of an international stir by walking off with the ring, and Bob Kraft defused the controversy by claiming he had given away the ring, but the story was hard to believe. So I asked what really happened.

As Kraft tells it, she and her husband were in St. Petersburg with Sandy Weill, then the chairman of Citigroup Inc., their “good friend” the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, an oil executive, and a physician. That group, all except for Kraft, met at Konstantinovsky Palace with the Russian president, and when she next saw her husband in their hotel room, he confessed he had a problem. “They were getting up for formal pictures, and Sandy said to Robert, ‘Why don’t you show the president your ring?’ ” she says. “So Robert never wears the ring, [but] sometimes, in certain instances, he’ll have it in his pocket, he’ll take it out. Putin put it on his finger, and his first comment was ‘I could kill someone with this,’ which was a little bit of an unusual comment, and then they took pictures, and Putin put it back in his pocket and walked out.”

Then the fuss began. The story leaked to the media, and Robert Kraft issued a statement: “I decided to give him the ring as a symbol of the respect and admiration that I have for the Russian people and the leadership of President Putin.”

Myra Kraft even has an explanation for the official story. “Sandy called and said, ‘You’ve got to do something to put this at rest,’ so Robert said ‘fine’ and came up with some statement about the warm fuzzy feelings he had being in Russia. Of course, his forebears were probably raped and pillaged by these people, but Robert had to make it sound good,” she says. “That’s what it is. And so he got another one.”

She is just as upfront about Israel, where she goes four or five times a year. “This past summer, during the war, I just had a need to go, and Robert said, ‘Please, just wait till the cease-fire, and then you can take the plane, and you can go that way,’ so the day after the cease-fire, I went just for 2 ½ days, but I just had that need.” She doesn’t read Hebrew, but she gets two Israeli papers – The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz – in English. Kraft says that while she is sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, she doesn’t believe Israel is to blame for that plight.

“You don’t solve problems by blowing yourself up in public buildings and killing innocent people – that’s not going to solve the problem,” she says. “I understand, if I were a Palestinian, and the third generation now in a refugee camp, I’d probably be doing the same thing to myself, because it’s wrong. But it’s not Israel’s fault.” Kraft blames Arab governments, which, she says, could do much more to help Palestinians. On a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, Kraft says, she was struck by the enormous wealth and the conspicuous consumption. “I think if I were a Palestinian and I were dropped down in Dubai for a little while, I’d be pretty ticked off.”

Make no mistake about it, the Krafts live well. They reside on a $10 million estate in Chestnut Hill, own four properties worth $12 million on Popponesset Island in Mashpee, vacation at the Ocean Club in the Bahamas – and don’t forget the plane. “I realize that it’s a privilege,” Myra Kraft says. “And I don’t want to abuse the privilege.”

Kraft treats board work like a job. When I tell her that her occupation was listed as “housewife” on a campaign contribution form, she is horrified. She says she comes at the work with no agenda other than to ask tough questions; in the one instance in which she felt her questions were not welcome, she resigned from the University of Massachusetts board in 1998 after only four years. “I just raise my hand and ask questions – I think that’s what a person is supposed to do if a person sits on a board of trustees,” she says. “I speak my mind, not to be negative or confrontational, but if I disagree with something, I’ll ask it or state it, and they can throw me off the board. At this point, people know what they’re getting with me.”

Nancy K. Kaufman, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, recalls Kraft summoning top officials of the Israeli government and American Jewish organizations to her hotel suite late one night during a major Jewish conference in Chicago in 2000 because she was upset over what she perceived to be insufficient support in Israel for Ethiopian Jews who had relocated there. “She just uses her own pulpit, asks questions and demands answers, and does not like not having an answer to a good question. She’s very persistent and is willing to challenge people in power to make a difference,” Kaufman says.

The best example of her level of involvement is the Boys & Girls Clubs, an organization that serves 6-to-18-year-olds in Boston and Chelsea who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. When the organization suffered a financial crunch in 2001 and 2002, Kraft took an office at the nonprofit and showed up three days a week, raising money and consulting with the management about a restructuring of the organization.

“Myra was banging the phones all day long raising money herself,” says Jonathan G. Davis, chief executive of Davis Marcus Partners, a commercial real estate development firm, who has known Kraft for years through Brandeis alumni activity and nonprofit fund-raising. “I can’t tell you how many board members say they’re going to make phone calls and they never do, but Myra is like a dog on the bone. She is absolutely indefatigable, and she rolls up her sleeves and does the work.”

Linda Whitlock, the president and chief executive of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, became Kraft’s friend, and even invited Kraft to join her book group. “She has always done what she believes others who have her capabilities and her relationships ought to do, which is to serve others,” says Whitlock. And CJP president Barry Shrage talks about her work in a similar way. “In a meeting, she’s the perfect chair, making sure people are heard,” he says. “But it’s behind the scenes where she’s making clear that she cares very deeply about the human suffering we encounter and that we have a responsibility to alleviate it.”

“It’s really caring for your fellow man, if you have the ability to do it,” Myra Kraft says. “My feeling, and Robert’s too, is if you’re fortunate enough to have acquired wealth, then it’s an obligation on you to give back.”