Billionaire Harry Weinberg died 10 months ago, but his secretive and reclusive ways live on in his namesake foundation, one of the largest charitable trusts in the country.
With at least $600 million before Weinberg's death, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc. ranks among the top 20 foundations in assets.
When his estate is settled, the Weinberg Foundation will be catapulted into an exclusive group of billion-dollar philanthropies, including the Ford Foundation, the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
But there are key differences between these high-profile groups and the Weinberg Foundation, and those differences frustrate some local charities, which have been hoping for an infusion of cash since Weinberg's death Nov. 4. Some of those differences:
* Perhaps the most unusual thing about the Weinberg foundation is the lengths to which it has gone in order to avoid any public discussion. Its charter states: "If any charitable organization at any time challenges, directly or indirectly, the manner in which the trustees exercise their discretion on any subject . . . such charitable organization shall forever be barred from receiving any distributions."
* With an unlisted telephone number and its policy of "pre-determining" grants, the foundation is virtually inaccessible to all charities, unless the charity's board or staff has an ongoing relationship with the foundation, or knows someone who knows the Weinberg Foundation's five trustees.
* Because the Weinberg Foundation says it will not consider unsolicited grant applications, proposals from some non-profit agencies were never acknowledged. Yet some groups that queried by letter subsequently were invited for interviews.
* The foundation produces no annual report nor any other regular publication. A list of its contributions is available only through its tax forms, copies of which are normally filed with the Maryland attorney general's office four months after the foundation's fiscal year ends in February. The 1990 tax form had not been filed as of today
* While foundations with more than $100 million in assets have an average staff size of 21, the Weinberg Foundation has one full-time staff person, according to the Foundation Directory, a national publication. However, the foundation is reported to be searching for an executive director.
Under the laws that govern private foundations, all of this is legal. It also is the way the Weinberg Foundation has chosen to do business since it was founded 32 years ago. But those connected with local charities have begun to question the organization's sense of propriety and fairness.
"My concern is that they're giving money out and there's no process," said one non-profit agency director, who requested anonymity. "Maybe legally they can be secretive and give money out at breakfast, but there doesn't seem to be any feeling for appearances."
Another source who works with non-profits said: "It is so completely an aberration it is beyond belief."
Lester A. Picker, of Pyramid Associates Inc., an Elkton consulting firm for non-profits, says he worries that the Weinberg Foundation has missed a chance to shape Baltimore's social services agenda.
"It is certainly not taking advantage of the expertise available to make sure their money is spent as wisely as it can be, and as leveraged as it can be," Picker said.
"A foundation of this size could make an enormous difference, could really effect definite, positive change in many social problems in Baltimore if they took a leadership position in those areas."
The three local trustees -- brothers Nathan and William Weinberg, and accountant Bernard Siegel -- declined to be interviewed for this story. William Weinberg referred a request for an interview back to the foundation office. Nathan Weinberg and Siegel did not return messages left on their answering machines.
The remaining trustees, Robert T. Kelly Sr. of Scranton, Pa., and Alvin Awaya of Honolulu, Hawaii, could not be reached for comment.
And the office's one-man staff said only trustees may give interviews. He declined to identify himself on the telephone, but promised to forward the request.
Born in Eastern Europe in 1908, Harry Weinberg grew up poor in southwest Baltimore. He dropped out of school at age 12, but he was ambitious and hard-working even as a boy. He liked to say he made his fortune according to an old proverb: Buy land -- they're not making it any more.
It was land -- in Baltimore and, more important, in Hawaii -- that made up the bulk of a fortune that Forbes magazine estimated last year at $950 million. When Weinberg died in Hawaii at 82, a year after the death of his wife, Jeanette, almost everything went to the foundation he had created in the couple's name in 1959.