Above: Barbara and Donald Jonas
Twelve years ago, Greenwich residents Barbara and Donald Jonas sold their substantial art collection and invested the $44 million proceeds into changing lives with some carefully targeted philanthropy. The couple focused their generosity on what Barbara, a psychiatric social worker, refers to as “undiscovered beaches” of need.
“We look for things that we feel passionately about and talk to all the experts in that field,” explains Donald, a retired retail executive, of their approach to developing a giving plan. “Then, we look for issues that aren’t being addressed. And from there, we consider ways we can do something that really matters and achieve results that can be scaled for the greatest impact.”
They began their philanthropic endeavors by investing $17 million into fortifying the ranks of the nation’s nurses—men and women the Jonases describe as unsung heroes in the healthcare system—by endowing the Jonas Scholars program. So far, the program has helped more than 1,000 doctoral-level nurses advance their training at one of 157 universities. A key component is to support the scholarship of nurses committed to addressing the healthcare needs of our veterans.
“There is an acute shortage of nurses that isn’t getting the attention it deserves,” says Barbara. “Helping the next generation of nurses get the degrees they need is our way of addressing a high-need issue with a high-impact result,” adds Donald.
This year, the couple took their philanthropy to a more expansive level when they launched the Jonas Philanthropies. While still deeply devoted to the training of nurses, they now support cures and research into childhood blindness and vision disorders as well as environmental health risks, particularly as they relate to children. “It’s an evolution of our work and personal passions that we hope will have an impact for generations to come,” says Barbara.
A few years ago, Donald Jonas learned he suffers from an inherited condition, late onset retinal dystrophy, which will lead to his eventual blindness.
“I’m an old-timer. I’ve been around the block and had the benefit of eyesight for most of my life,” he says. “But as Donald began losing his vision, he started to think about what this kind of disease means for young children,” says wife Barbara. “The impact blindness can have on a child’s life is devastating, and we both agreed this initiative had the potential to change lives.”
Jonas Philanthropies has invested $6.4 million into programs at Columbia University; the Barbara & Donald Jonas Stem Cell Laboratory at the Harkness Eye Institute, and Jonas Children’s Vision Care.
After two of her children suffered from chronic health issues, Lendi Purcell, the Jonas’ granddaughter, began to examine potential environmental links. “She came to learn of the impact that environmental toxins— in everything from furniture to cleaning products—have on the health of children,” says Barbara. Inspired by Lendi’s findings, Jonas Philanthropies invested more than $1 million to launch the Jonas Children’s Environmental Health Investments, which awarded a four-year grant to create an online source for parents researching environmental toxins. They also awarded a grant to the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine to advance efforts in making the connection between environmental toxins and child health. jonasphilanthropies.org