The millions that Leona Helmsley left to her dog Trouble are a puddle compared to the pile earmarked for dog care in the Helmsley's charitable foundation. But it could be that the foundation's goals are far from frivolous.
In the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin spotlights the increasing legal acceptance—and perplexities—of trusts set up to benefit pets. ("Rich Bitch," September 29, 2008, available here.)
For those not following the ongoing shaggy dog story, the New York Post reported in June ("Screw the Pooch," by Dareh Gregorian) that New York Surrogate's Court Judge Renee Roth reduced the trust fund left by Mrs. Hemley for her dog Trouble from $12 million to $2 million, giving the balance to the Helmslsey's foundation.
While the papers trumpeted the reduction in the bequest, Mr. Toobin points out that it was actually a victory for animal rights advocates that the judge supported the $2 million. The basis for the balance was an affidavit from the dog's caretaker, Carl Lekic, detailing the dog's expenses as $190,200 a year, including $60,000 a year for Mr. Lekic, $100,000 a year for full-time private security, with the balance being grooming ($8,000) veterinary costs (currently $2,500, expected to rise to $18,000 as the dog ages), food ($1,200), and miscellaneous expenses ($3,000). The dog's veterinarian estimated her remaining lifespan as three to five years. (I think the real winners here were Mr. Lekic and whoever is providing the security.)
The big money story belongs to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust (EIN 13-7184401 Form 990). It's not big yet, but when the estate is wound up it will have assets of between three and eight billion dollars. Mr. Toobin found that Mrs. Helmsley changed the mission statement of the trust. The September, 2003 version has three goals: care for dogs, care for indigent people especially children, and such other charitable activities as the Trustee shall determine. In March, 2004, she redrafted the mission statement to drop the provision for care of indigent people. So the only specific direction for the trustees is to provide for the care of dogs.
This would make the Helmsley's Charitable Trust by far the largest private foundation dedicated to the care of animals. Currently the largest is Maddie's Fund, officially the Duffield Family Foundation d/b/a Maddie's Fund (EIN 68-0339626 Form 990, careful: huge file), founded in 1999 by the founder of PeopleSoft and his wife. With about $300 million in assets, Maddie's fund paid out about $10 million in grants. The Helmsley's Charitable Trust will be at least ten times as large. For comparison, the Humane Society of the United States (EIN 53-0225390 Form 990) has annual expenses in the $70 million range.
Yet a group in New York, the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals (EIN 73-1653635 Form 990) has a plan that could require spending at that level. The group currently operates with $3 million or so annual funding from Maddie's Fund and has succeeded in reducing the percentage of stray animals euthenized in New York from 74% to 23% from 2002 to 2007. They would expand their efforts with more spay/neuter vans ($200,000 each) and windowed adoption vans ($170,000 each).
There was some talk about the supposedly frivolous nature of Mrs. Helmsley's bequest. The Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Hudson Institute (EIN 13-1945157 Form 990) sponsored a forum early in September titled "Is Philanthropy Going to the Dogs?" (transcript here) featuring Robert Bork (by phone), Pablo Eisenberg, Ray Madoff (Boston College) and Leslie Lenkowsky (Indiana University). The participants aired a lot of the usual ideas about ways to make foundations more responsible and some unusual perspectives on Mrs. Helmsley.
But what strikes me is that the Helmsley's Charitable Trust is likely to provide private funding for one of the most prosaic government services of all: animal control. And unlike most of the grandiose human services programs that come out of private foundations, it looks like the Helmsley's Charitable Trust could make a measurable difference by significantly reducing the number and percentage of stray animals killed each year in the US. Leona Helmsley has accomplished what few foundations have been able to do: establish a foundation with a mission that is reasonably related to the resources it has available to it.
It seems we have here a foundation with some humility, and that's a good thing. Mazal tov, Mrs. Helmsley.