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"Philantrophy is part of our family tradition, part of the family's DNA."

  • January 2017

"Philantrophy is part of our family tradition, part of our family's DNA."

The patriarch of the British branch of the Rothschild family on the importance of philanthropy


The term philanthropy – “love of humanity” – dates back to the ancient Greeks, and today generally refers to private initiatives for the public good. Few surviving historical families are as closely associated with large and sustained charitable causes as the renowned Rothschilds. As patriarch of the British branch of his family, Jacob Rothschild is very much aware of the importance of carrying on his family’s tradition. As he explains, philanthropy not only benefits the people and institutions it helps; it also benefits those who give by promoting closer family ties and a sense of responsibility in the world that can be passed down through subsequent generations.

LIKE HIS LEGENDARY FAMILY, the Fourth Baron Rothschild is known for many things: as the patriarch of the British branch of Rothschilds; a brilliant and innovative banker; renowned art collector; as well as the self-effacing manner with which he speaks of his many achievements. But it’s difficult to ignore what is perhaps the most prominent reason for Baron Rothschild’s fame – his devotion to philanthropy, which closely reflects his family’s historical dedication to good citizenship and generous giving.

While stories of wealthy families fighting amongst themselves and squandering their family fortunes are legion, the Rothschilds have not only set an admirable example of how a family can remain intact, but how to do so via a common sense of greater purpose. “Philanthropy has a lot to do with our family’s values,” Rothschild told The Focus in a recent interview. “Beginning particularly with the 19th century, members of my family were brought up, once they’d made money, to give a lot of it back. They did an enormous amount of philanthropic work, both in this country and in France and Central Europe.”

It’s a lesson that was firmly instilled in Jacob Rothschild himself. His own philanthropic involvement is so extensive that it could take a page just to list it all. Highlights, however, include being chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery, chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund; and chairman of the British National Heritage Lottery Fund, which allocated more than 1.3 billion euros to National Parks, historical churches, museums, cathedrals, and for the preservation of natural habitats.

Close to the heart

Two of Rothschild’s dearest philanthropies are directly related to his desire to carry on cherished family traditions: the restoration of the Rothschild family’s French Renaissance chateau in Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor, which has been donated to the National Trust and which receives 350,000 visitors annually; and Yad Hanadiv, the family’s philanthropic trust in Israel, which is responsible for building Israel’s Knesset (parliament building), the Supreme Court building, and now a National Library.

“A big influence on my life was my late cousin, Mrs. James Rothschild, who left me with the responsibility for the two things that she really cared about,” Rothschild says. “For the past twenty years or so I’m been very deeply engaged and taken that responsibility very seriously. She was very influential in teaching me about philanthropy.”

Such philanthropy for Rothschild is indeed learned and passed down. “It’s partly family tradition, which my late cousin made me very aware of, and partly an obligation that I grew to feel over the years toward civil society and putting something back in this country that I thought was worthwhile,” Rothschild says. “I’ve tried to bring my children up to be very aware of our family’s tradition. It’s something I’ve tried to make my children feel strongly about, and in fact, they are all involved in philanthropies. My daughter Hannah is a trustee of the National Gallery and very active in the Hay Literary Festival; my daughter Beth is deeply involved in horticulture and land conservation, as well as our work in Israel; and my son is a trustee of the Yad Hanadiv and a significant benefactor to Wadham College, Oxford.”

A dynasty of giving

The Rothschild family dynasty began with Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744  – 1812), who lived in Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto. Mayer became the first notable banker in the family after earning the patronage of local German nobility. One of Mayer’s biggest innovations was to place his sons in cities across Europe – London, Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt, and Naples – to diversify and internationalize the family’s banking business and thereby strengthen and preserve the family’s intellectual and financial capital. And when an immediate direct heir is not apparent, the Rothschilds typically look for a blood relative elsewhere in the family, as was the case with Jacob and his distant cousin-by-marriage, Mrs. James Rothschild. Despite an international depression, two world wars, and the Holocaust, thanks to Mayer’s forethought, several branches of the Rothschilds – particularly the British and French – survived and continue to prosper. They own major investment institutions in England, France, and Switzerland; three world-famous vineyards; as well as numerous investment holdings around the world. According to Jacob Rothschild, an emphasis on philanthropy has played a large role in keeping the Rothschild family intact all these years and across so many national borders, and with preserving its enviably good reputation.

The family’s DNA

“The family motto is Concordia, industria, integritas,” he says. “As for Concordia, in the earlier days, the family worked very closely together. In this day and age, they, to quite a significant extent, have gone their own separate ways. It’s a big family after all these years. There’s almost a proliferation of Rothschilds. We had a gathering in Frankfurt a few years ago, when the 250th anniversary of Mayer Amschel was being celebrated, and I think about 125 members of my family came. Many of them are independent and doing their own thing, which is perfectly natural after eight generations. And yet there is a sort of clannish feeling amongst my family that helps keep us together.

“Philanthropy is a way of keeping a family together. There are certain common standards, which we all implicitly adhere to. We have a common objective of doing some good with the advantages that we have inherited, and have created as well. Philanthropy is quite important to us. It’s part of our family tradition, part of the family’s DNA, that we go on doing these kinds of things. It’s an important part of the family vocabulary to do some good in exchange for the benefits of wealth.”

“It’s an important part of the family vocabulary to do some good in exchange for the benefits of wealth.”

Making philanthropy an integral part of a family’s essence is something that differentiates philanthropy in Europe, and the Rothschilds in particular, from American-style giving, according to Rothschild. “On my side of the family, there are two significant philanthropic initiatives which don’t die with me, which will continue to have a life after me. If you take some of the great foundations in the United States – Frick, Mellon, Carnegie – what have they become? They have really ceased to be, in any way, family philanthropic foundations. They have become bureaucratised, albeit well run institutionalised foundations. I think I’m right in saying that there isn’t a Getty or a Mellon that serves on their foundations. Whereas the European tradition is rather different and applies to our family. We intend that our family foundations, even though they are in part bureaucratised, will still have the character of being Rothschild foundations. Our intention is that they should have a perpetual life. Our policy is not to be a “sunset foundation” run by others with little or no family involvement which spends its capital over a certain period of time, but rather a foundation that will be continued by my children, my grandchildren, etcetera and etcetera.”

Regardless of how a family foundation operates, Rothschild believes that economic conditions today are particularly ripe for philanthropic generosity, particularly in his own country. “The UK is going through a difficult period. We are a country that is indebted, will have to have quite high taxation, isn’t going to have very high growth over the next decade probably, and in those circumstances, those shortfalls which are emerging in our society can in some measure be met by more philanthropic initiatives. I see philanthropy increasingly filling that gap. I hope it will become a larger part of society here.”

The interview with Lord Rothschild in London was conducted by John J. Grumbar, Egon Zehnder, London, and Ulrike Krause, THE FOCUS.

RESUMÉ Lord Jacob Rothschild

Lord Jacob Rothschild is the Fourth Baron and current patriarch of the British branch of the House of Rothschild. For nearly 250 years, the Rothschilds have been offering discreet advice to many of Europe’s wealthiest industrialists, kings, queens, and emperors. They have cultivated a legendary reputation for good citizenship and generous philanthropy that has historically supported the arts, the poor, medical care, education, and Jewish causes. The London branch of the family helped fund the Napoleonic Wars; helped England avert a liquidity crisis in 1825 using their own money; and financed the purchase of the Suez Canal. Jacob Rothschild attended Eton and Oxford, and got his start in banking at Morgan Stanley and his family’s bank, NM Rothschild. He further proved his investment mettle by establishing his own successful investment firm RIT. Rothschild is a pro-minent patron of the arts in Britain, serving as chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and the British National Heritage Lottery Fund. He also oversees Waddeson, his family’s restored chateau in Buckinghamshire, which is run by himself and the National Trust as a museum.


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