In 2016, Mark Heising and Liz Simons, founders of the Heising-Simons Foundation, announced their participation in the Giving Pledge. The Giving Pledge is a multi-generational, global initiative created by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates that encourages the wealthiest families to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes.
The following is the letter Liz and Mark wrote about their philanthropy and why they joined.
A young child’s discovery that a triangle is a triangle because it has three sides and three corners, the quest for what makes up dark matter, preserving our planet for future generations, shifting power to marginalized communities so people can live freely and with dignity – these are some of the things we care about. Our time here is short, but our trajectory can be long. We seek philanthropic investments today that we hope will have sustainable impacts beyond our lifetimes.
Our philanthropy is grounded in our life experiences. Years ago, when I was an elementary school teacher in under-resourced schools, I saw firsthand how students who had access to quality early learning and care began with advantages that other children didn’t have, advantages that shaped their lives. Mark majored in physics, got his master’s in electrical engineering and computer science, and worked as a chip designer before going into finance. He became convinced that climate change could only be addressed by applying the best science and technology we have. He also never stopped being enthralled by the world of science and the promise of wonders yet to be discovered.
So it’s no surprise that when we had the opportunity to start the Heising-Simons Foundation, Mark and I focused on the things we believed really mattered: early childhood education, science, and climate and clean energy. In early childhood education, we look to prepare young children for school and life by increasing access to quality early learning – and supporting the educators and caregivers who provide it. In science, we believe that basic research, done strategically, has the potential to innovate, elevate, and revolutionize humanity’s knowledge – especially when inclusive of scientists who are women and people of color. And in climate and clean energy, we seek to hasten the transition to a zero-carbon energy future.
Mark’s parents and mine have been role models for us, and have had tremendous impact, not only on what we do, but how we do it. Mark’s mother, who ran a food bank for many years, wanted to do good – and wanted to do good well. She created efficient systems, running the food bank like a strong business. My mother’s relentless activism around election integrity inspires us to never give up defending what we believe in. My father’s and stepmother’s philanthropic work in basic science, math, and autism research excites us to dream of what can be possible by supporting researchers capable of transforming our understanding of our universe and of ourselves.
Our parents were also the kind of parents who talked to us about inequities in the world, and the need to give back. My father’s and stepmother’s signing of the Giving Pledge exemplifies this attitude, and Mark and I are enormously grateful to be able to follow in their footsteps.
We have also had the opportunity to follow the lead of a younger member of the family: our daughter, Caitlin, who joined our foundation’s board in 2014. Caitlin brought with her a passion for human rights. She was appalled by our country’s disregard for the millions of people whose lives are turned upside down by our system of mass incarceration. She rightly noted that we have diminished grounds for condemning other nations for rights abuses when we lock away and criminalize far more people than any other country in the world- in a system grounded in racial injustice.
Mark and I were moved and inspired by our daughter, and, as a foundation and family, we took on addressing the structural racism that pervades our society and manifests through systems of punishment – mass incarceration and immigrant detention. Our Human Rights program seeks to shift power from punishment systems to people impacted by mass criminalization; dismantle these systems in the United States; and work towards reimagined approaches to justice that invest in communities rather than prisons and surveillance, and that promote practices of healing and community accountability rooted in our common humanity.
As philanthropists, we are nothing more than conduits of power. Those to whom we give are the community leaders, the educators, the researchers, the policy makers, the innovators, and the activists who will rise up and make the change we all need to see. By signing the Giving Pledge, we promise to be allies in their work, work that may not be finished in a day, but that we hope will light the way for many brighter days to come.