LIKE ANY POPULAR food writer, Gary Taubes gets more than his share of e-mails about his work. So he didn't give it much thought one day two years ago when he got a five-line comment about a podcast he'd given the week before. It was plainly signed "John."
The man was intrigued by Taubes's theories on why people get fat—more specifically, the food writer's argument that most of the science on obesity is either badly flawed or inconclusive. What was needed, Taubes had said, was a comprehensive experiment that can answer some of the key questions about how our bodies process food. The problem is that such a study is hugely expensive. "From the little I know about the science of nutrition, your study makes a lot of sense," the listener wrote, adding that he ran a foundation focused on public policy.
Taubes noticed that the full name in the email was John Arnold, and a quick Google search turned up a curious figure under that name: a wunderkind natural-gas trader at Enron who later founded his own hedge fund. The fund was secretive—little-known in its hometown, Houston, much less the rest of the country—but legendary in hedge-fund circles for its mega-returns. It was starting to get interesting.
Taubes passed the name onto Peter Attia, a medical doctor with whom he had recently founded a nonprofit focused on nutrition science. Attia recalls that when he called to see if he could set up a meeting with Arnold, the response was, "First give us the names of 20 top experts in the field, half of whom think you are crazy." A few weeks later, he found himself in a conference room located just off the trading floor at Arnold's Houston office, during which it became apparent that Arnold and his staff had already spoken with most, if not all, of the experts Attia provided. And something else was apparent: Though boyish and just 37, Arnold was dead serious about launching the obesity study. Indeed, his ambitions couldn't have been higher. He wanted to know if all the best and brightest food scientists got together—and had unlimited resources—what could they accomplish?
Interactive: The Big Give
Arnold, it turns out, had accumulated a fortune estimated at $4 billion in the past decade—only a handful of people on Wall Street made more during that time. Although he had not yet announced it, Arnold had decided to give almost all of it away. In October 2012, he closed his hedge fund, Centaurus Energy, and retired. In U.S. history, there may have never been a self-made individual with so much money who devoted himself to philanthropy at such a young age.
But as Taubes and Attia discovered, Arnold and his wife, Laura, have a somewhat unique approach to giving. Most billionaires tend to write checks to good causes they're part of, hospitals where they were treated or universities they attended. These are the so-called "grateful-recipient" donors. Or there are donors who make sizable gifts to meet an obvious need in a community, such as hunger or education. But at a time when charitable giving in the U.S. is still down from its peak in 2007, the Arnolds want to try something new and somewhat grander. John says the goal is to make "transformational" changes to society.
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The Arnolds want to see if they can use their money to solve some of the country's biggest problems through data analysis and science, with an unsentimental focus on results and an aversion to feel-good projects—the success of which can't be quantified. No topic is too ambitious: Along with obesity, the Arnolds plan to dig into criminal justice and pension reform, among others. Anne Milgram, the former New Jersey attorney general hired to tackle the criminal-justice issue, has a name for all this: She calls it the "Moneyball" approach to giving, a reference to the book and movie about how the Oakland A's used smart statistical analysis to upend some of baseball's conventional wisdom. And the Arnolds are in no hurry for answers. Indeed, they believe patience is a key resource behind their giving.
Today, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is bankrolling a $26 million nutrition study by Attia's nonprofit, an effort that involves the use of metabolic chambers and that Attia likes to call "the Manhattan Project of obesity." And that's just part of the splash the foundation is making: Out of virtually nowhere, the couple gave away or pledged $423 million last year, vaulting them to the third-highest givers in the country, according to the latest ranking from The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Arnolds aren't stopping at research; they're also funding reform efforts that they say align with the findings of their studies—and the political candidates who agree.
But as the Arnolds' profile grows, of course, not everyone is a fan of this science of giving, especially since it comes at a cost to the many individuals and local organizations who need direct help now and could benefit from their billions. The answer to the most asked question may not be known for years: Will their plan work?"
ARNOLD, WHO TURNS 40 next year, is clean-cut and polite—he is the sort of man many Southern mothers hope their daughters will bring home, even if his net worth didn't include nine zeroes. If you ran into him in one of the recreational soccer leagues where he has been known to play on the weekends, you would likely think he was an accountant or the manager of a rental-car agency, not a hedge-fund titan. Over the years, he's given only a handful of interviews. In a rare public appearance, in 2009, he testified nervously before Congress about proposed limits on commodities trading (an article in Fortune about the appearance noted how he "filled and refilled and re-refilled his water glass.") He and his wife agreed to meet with me, he says, because he believes that his career as a philanthropist comes with obligations that he didn't have as a private investor. "To address these problems, we have to be out front," he says.
One phrase comes up repeatedly when you talk to people about Arnold: "the smartest guy in the room." His admirers say the phrase fits him in the literal sense, and it explains how an introvert in his early 30s reached the peak of a field dominated by brash personalities (even by hedge-fund standards, natural-gas traders are considered a swashbuckling bunch). In addition to his intellect, Arnold was known for his meticulous research of weather patterns and pipeline routes—and his subsequent massive bets on the movement of natural-gas prices. Most famously, in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, while rival fund Amaranth Advisors built a huge position gambling that gas prices would jump due to more storms, Arnold disagreed and took the other side of the trade. It paid off with a profit of more than $1 billion when he turned out to be right (Amaranth collapsed as a result).
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A couple of years later, he correctly anticipated a commodities bubble and almost doubled his money again when prices collapsed. And yet, as his success piled on, friends say, Arnold was thinking about giving his money away even before he had made it all. Mike Feinberg, founder of the charter-school chain Knowledge is Power Program, recalls that Arnold cold-called him when he was still working at Enron and offered to volunteer. The two would meet at a pub, have a pint and talk about education. "I had no idea how much money he had," Feinberg says.
But Arnold's detractors use the "smartest guy" tag to link him to Enron—the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary and a best-selling book, both called "The Smartest Guys in the Room," which describe a corporation brought low by corruption and arrogance. Arnold joined the company in 1996, fresh out of Vanderbilt University, and was its highest-paid employee five years later at age 27. His bonus in 2001 was $8 million, based on his trading making the firm almost a billion dollars. Arnold has never been accused of wrongdoing, but that hasn't stopped critics from using his Enron background against him.
J. Michael Downey, president of Rhode Island's biggest union of state employees, says he considered it a "wonderful Christmas present" when The Wall Street Journal reported in December that Arnold was helping to fund a pension-reform effort in concert with Gina Raimondo, the state's Democratic general treasurer. Downey says he'd never heard of Arnold before the article appeared but sees Arnold's Enron background as evidence that he cares less about workers than pursuing a Darwinian form of capitalism. "That's how he operates," Downey says. For his part, Arnold says he is "pro-worker" and that solving pension reform will only save jobs in the long run. And he jokes about his smarts, saying that he's not even the brains in his own marriage. To be sure, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is exactly what the name suggests—a couple's equal partnership. I met with them in the foundation's Houston office, the same less-than-prestigious second-floor location where Centaurus was based, although the trading floor has been replaced with spacious cubicles and the color scheme softened to reflect a less-frenetic environment (an automatic-return putting game sat in a hallway next to the conference room). Laura was the first to arrive. A striking brunette of Puerto Rican heritage, she graduated from Yale Law School and worked as a corporate attorney before becoming general counsel at Cobalt Energy, a publicly traded oil company based in Houston. Of the two, she is the talker; he, the listener. When John entered the room, dressed casually in slacks and a lightly checkered dress shirt, he sat quietly taking notes on a legal pad for most of the first 30 minutes.
Laura says the foundation's focus on systemic problems without easy answers makes it difficult to explain their mission at times—even presenting a challenge to the company they hired to design a website. "We don't have a bunch of smiling kids and graduation pictures. That's not what we're about," she says. But she and her husband decided early on that the foundation would not pick what she called "the low-hanging fruit" of philanthropy. As she explained it, they don't question the worthiness of writing checks to established groups that directly benefit needy individuals. In fact, they continue to do so privately. But they wanted to focus on public-policy problems that led to what Laura calls "moral inefficiencies," where their considerable resources could help generate solutions. Using the vernacular of a trader, John calls them "high-leverage opportunities."
"We started with the broad mission of, 'How can we produce the most good?'" he says. His background as a trader, he says, is fundamental to the foundation's approach. He wants to spend a lot of time doing research and evaluating data, and then make a handful of big bets, even if they involve considerable risk. "From the outside, you look at a lot of these foundations, and you see groups that are risk-averse. They are trying to prove that they are having some success," he says. But he wants to explore unproven ideas that are not likely to be pursued by governments, and which almost surely wouldn't be pursued by corporations since there is no immediate path to profit. He says he knows that many—if not most—of his foundation's projects will fail or come to nothing. "If you are not willing to take risk," he says, "the end reward is limited."
The Arnolds hired Milgram to analyze criminal justice, with the mandate to "take resources off the table for a while"—in other words, don't worry about what the research will cost. She zeroed in on how, despite New York City's success with the CompStat crime-reduction system, the influence of empirical data has barely trickled down to the local level. "It's hard to think of an area that is less data-driven and analytical than local government," Milgram says. In particular, she and Laura became fixated on how the country spends $9 billion to keep nonviolent, pretrial defendants behind bars, even though there is little data on the risks those accused pose to society. As Milgram points out, most baseball teams know more about their backup shortstops than judges know about pretrial defendants before locking them up at great cost to society and the accused.
"It struck us as a uniquely bad mechanism to decide who should stay in jail," says Laura, who also sits on the board of The Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to clear prisoners on death row. Using data from more than 1.5 million cases, Milgram and her team created a risk-assessment tool for judges that will be tested in three jurisdictions later this year. The Manhattan district attorney's office is planning to try a similar tool designed for prosecutors.
Milgram's project fits one element of the Arnold model: fund promising research for relatively small amounts—millions, if that can be deemed small—with the implicit commitment to spend substantially more if the results point to practical solutions. In other areas, namely pension reform and education, they are spending money to support initiatives that they believe are based on sound research. "What we're hoping is that more policy decisions can be made based on data, and not just on instinct or fear," Laura says.
That approach is surprisingly rare in top-dollar philanthropy. "With philanthropists, much of the benefit and the accolades come when you give the money, not when you solve the problem, which I think is backwards," says Steven Levitt, an economist and co-author of "Freakonomics." After the success of his book, Levitt launched a consulting firm in 2011 with other distinguished economists and psychologists, including several Nobel laureates, with the hope of renting out brainpower for problem-solving. The firm has many corporate clients, Levitt says, but big foundations and philanthropists have shown little interest. "Nobody was really asking if their money does any good in the world," says Levitt, who has met the Arnolds and is a fan of their system.
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To some degree, of course, all donors care about whether their money is being put to good use, but rich people apparently don't care more than others. Studies have shown that a desire for maximum results is "not highly correlated to wealth," says Katherina Rosqueta, director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, Rosqueta adds, because of their resources, wealthy donors are more tempted to make "high input" gifts—in other words, simply write big checks—rather than seek out those with high impact.
But "Moneyball" giving has its obvious drawbacks, the first of which is it doesn't fill any current need or crisis like regular giving does. Few, if any, communities have found shelter for all of their homeless families or funded scholarships for all of their needy schoolchildren, and many donors would prefer to directly help those individuals locally rather than pursue a broader agenda. Besides, for many people, stripping philanthropy of sentimentality defeats the purpose: It is tremendously gratifying to most people to visit a new school facility that their money helped build or to tour a woman's shelter that wouldn't be able to keep its doors open without the donor's financial support.
Adam Meyerson, head of the Philanthropy Roundtable, a nonprofit group that promotes and assists donors, says most people understandably are satisfied to know their money is helping people have better lives. To pursue broader goals typically requires a greater investment of time and energy—resources many wealthy people have in less abundance than money, particularly if they are still working. It's also true that "high-impact philanthropy" requires confidence—"some would say cockiness," Rosqueta says—to tackle problems that have proven resistant to easy solutions.
In addition, history shows that money doesn't always move the needle when it comes to public-policy issues. To cite just one example, private-equity executive Pete Peterson has spent decades, and tens of millions of dollars, trying to raise awareness about the national debt. Like other deficit hawks, he's had limited success. And anytime rich guys get involved in polarizing issues like pension reform and public education, many will dismiss the efforts as evidence of a 1-percent agenda at work. (In response, a spokesperson for Peterson says that "achieving meaningful change is always challenging" and that awareness is higher.)
The Arnolds, who call themselves "independent-minded Democrats," say they don't have political motivations and even hired Denis Calabrese, a former Republican operative, to run their foundation and build its strategy. John says they only donate "where the politics start to meet in the middle." Don't tell that to Houston teachers, who consider the couple Public Enemy No. 1 due to their efforts on pension reform and more rigorous evaluations of educators. Gayle Fallon, head of the Houston Federation of Teachers, says the Arnolds are misguided in their relentless pursuit of data. "Not everything of value can be measured," she says.
THE NEW WAREHOUSE for the Houston Food Bank, painted in sprightly greens and oranges, is buzzing on a recent Friday night. High-school kids and families stream in for another night of "rock n' box," in which they sort and package food donated by supermarkets for distribution to area food pantries, while bouncing to the beats of Kid Rock and Rihanna.
The food bank used to get about 30 volunteers on an average Friday night. Since it started "rock n' box," that figure is closer to 300. "Labor is our friend," says Brian Greene, a cheerful and jokey 50-year-old in his seventh year as president of the Houston Food Bank. With a 300,000-square-foot warehouse, it is the largest food bank in the country, and using volunteers is just one way it saves money. It also receives tens of thousands of pounds of produce from local farmers—stuff supermarkets won't buy, like undersized limes and potatoes—and pays material costs to others who grow beans and rice specifically for the food bank.
The Arnolds personally gave the food bank $10 million to build the facility, but made it clear their foundation was interested in doing more than just promoting efficiency. Greene says the Arnolds were intrigued by the food bank's data showing that most of its end users were not derelict; they had places to live, but in times of financial stress chose to pay rent rather than buy food. Hunger was an immediate problem, but it was caused by root problems such as joblessness or chronic health issues, which the food bank was not addressing.
The Arnolds pressed Greene to think about how he could use his distribution system to get other essential services to poor people. Would it be possible to not only give food but also provide job-training and financial literacy? What about screening and programs to help people manage type-2 diabetes, which is a huge problem in low-income communities? Those conversations led Greene, in turn, to his bosses at Feeding America, the nationwide organization of food banks that provides assistance to 37 million Americans annually, or one in eight people. To them, the Arnolds have been almost literally a dream come true. "It's not like we weren't thinking about these things. We know we can't food-bank our way out of this problem," says Maura Daly, chief development officer for Feeding America. "There are just not a lot of funders interested in getting involved at this level."
Feeding America is basically a wholesaler; its 200 food banks work with about 61,000 agencies that actually distribute food at the local and neighborhood level. So what the Arnolds are doing now is bankrolling an assessment of which of those organizations are most effective and which produce results that are scalable. Does it even make sense to pair the delivery of food with other services like job training and health care? Daly says they don't know for sure, but it is thrilling to be asking these questions. "The great thing about the Arnolds is that they are not thinking small," Daly says. "Most billionaires don't have the luxury of putting 40 years into solving a problem."