Remembering John C. Whitehead

February 17, 2015 by Alex Counts

John C. Whitehead will be laid to rest today in New York City. He will be remembered as a longtime friend and champion of Grameen Foundation and global efforts to defeat poverty. (Photo: Bloomberg)

I first met John C. Whitehead long after he had stormed Omaha Beach, led Goldman Sachs and served as Deputy Secretary of State. When I came by his office in May 2000 with Steve Rockefeller, Jr., I was a 33-year old leader of this nascent international humanitarian organization. Yet Mr. Whitehead, as Steve always called him, ended up shaping my career in ways I could barely have imagined on that spring day. His death, at 92 earlier this month, is a personal loss.

The day we met, Mr. Whitehead agreed to donate $50,000 to a campaign Steve and I were spearheading to scale up three microfinance organizations in India that had been set up to combat poverty through the economic empowerment of women. Our pitch was that if we could raise $1 million that summer, these organizations could use it to attract $7 million in financing within India and increase their outreach from 46,000 to 164,000 poor women within 30 months.
The meeting with Whitehead gave us momentum, and we were able to reach our fund-raising goal in a few weeks. More important, those three organizations met their local capital-raising and growth goals – six months early. That success helped spawn a decade of growth in microfinance in India that changed the options available to millions of rural poor families and, like many things in India, led to its own excesses, backlash and later, revitalization.
I tried to engage Whitehead as a long-term financial supporter, advocate and mentor. Despite the fact that he would soon take on the thankless task of coordinating the rebuilding of lower Manhattan after 9/11, he not only agreed to do all of these things, but he did them with great energy, focus and humility.
A year after making the first big donation, he made another, which I had presumed was earmarked for further work in India. When we ran into some financial headwinds after the post-9/11 economic downturn, I called to ask if we could reprogram the funds elsewhere. His reply: he had a policy of not restricting donations to organizations like ours, so we were free to use it any way we saw fit.
This expression of trust in my judgment meant a lot to me. In fact, it formed the basis of Grameen Foundation’s Annual Fund, which was named after our second Chairman, Jim Sams, and his wife Betty, who believed, like Mr. Whitehead did, in the power of letting humanitarian organizations set their own priorities rather than having donors impose their own.
In 2001 he agreed to mentor me. In a half-dozen sessions to follow, he sat with me for an hour, or more, to answer questions such as how to build a great board of directors (“one good board member at a time – there are no shortcuts”), how to raise money, and when to fire someone (“by the time you are considering it, you should probably just get it over with”). Once, his secretary called him during one of our sessions to say that the Governor of New York was on the phone for him. To my amazement, he did not take the call, as he didn’t want to interrupt the flow of our mentoring session.

In later years he would see me, or take a call from me, whenever I asked for one. I learned, as he approached 90, to ask for morning meetings as he struggled to stay awake during the afternoon. We invited him to many events, and if his schedule allowed, he would always come. He was willing to speak if we asked, but he was also content to just mix and mingle, and elevate the occasion with his mere presence. There was no big ego to manage, stroke or potentially offend.
Some years ago we organized a lunch to motivate three female executives at Goldman Sachs to get involved with Grameen Foundation’s anti-poverty work. After much negotiation, we agreed to have it in a restaurant one block from their Wall Street area office, for their convenience. We had invited Mr. Whitehead as a courtesy. His secretary said he could only come if the lunch was close to his midtown office. So we figured he would skip it once we settled on the downtown venue. Not so fast. He ambled in with a walker and took an active part in the entire discussion.
There were many differences between us. Our ages, for one. I am thankful that we never discussed politics, nor attended a Harvard-Cornell game together. But we shared a desire, clichéd as it may sound, to serve our fellow human beings and invest in the maddeningly slow, “building brick by brick” nature of most positive and lasting social change.
I will do my best to carry on our shared ideals, ideals that he modeled for me – and stoked in me – during the final 15 years of his distinguished life.