Five decades ago, Harry Fath, then a young lawyer, decided to buy a six-unit apartment building in Cincinnati, Ohio. Over time, Fath’s small enterprise grew into Fath Properties, which now includes some 30 properties with upward of 8,000 units in several states. A 1963 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Fath served in the Army and earned his law degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1968. He credits much of his success to educators never giving up on him when he was a student.
As is common among wealthy donors, Fath, now 82, has been a steady backer of his alma mater. “Fifty-two years ago, I was making $100 a week. But my wife and I have always had a generous philosophy. But I was laughing the other day. My first gift to Notre Dame was $100,000 over 10 years. But that was a lot of money back then,” Fath told me in a recent interview.
Fath started turning to philanthropy alongside his wife Linda, who is active in local civic life and has served on a range of boards, including that of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. The couple’s giving adds up to some pretty impressive figures, and as he suggests, their high-dollar gifts have swelled along with those of the sector’s largest practitioners. In 2022, the Faths gave away around $275 million, up from just $50 million in 2017. And their long-running giving has been conducted without a formal family foundation, which, as Fath explained, is completely by design.
In this era of big fortunes and big philanthropy, the Faths are another example of a wealthy family engaging in significant giving well under the radar. Sure, it’s not giving that spans the globe, or even the country, but it’s indicative of how one wealthy local family can really make an impact in their community over the decades.
But what do the Faths support? Why do they eschew the family foundation model? And what can we expect from them down the line? We found out all that and more in our recent chat.
Supporting at-risk youth
Harry Fath is a product of Jesuit Catholic education, graduating from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati before going on to Notre Dame. When the Faths turned to larger-scale giving in the 1980s, Fath says he and his wife initially spread their money around pretty widely. But over time, the couple narrowed their focus so that they could make the most impact. Fath got involved with the Catholic Inner City Schools Education (CISE) board, which provides children in Cincinnati’s inner city with access to a “values-based Catholic education.” The Faths have strongly supported CISE through the years, including with a $50 million gift to Catholic Inner City Schools Education in 2022.
In 2021, the couple made a $50 million gift to the University of Notre Dame for undergraduate financial aid. Fath’s older brother also attended the institution, which had an endowment of more than $13 billion at the end of the fiscal year 2022. “They have the money. They are doing stuff all over the world, including things that have nothing to do with academics on campus. But I wanted kids from lower economic backgrounds to be able to go,” Fath said.
The couple also made $50 million gifts apiece to Xavier University, St. Xavier High School and Notre Dame Law School, home of the Harry Fath Family Endowed Law Library Collection. “Xavier University is a great asset in Cincinnati. Compared to Notre Dame, Xavier University has like a $250 million endowment,” Fath added, explaining why he supports the local institution.
Fifty-million dollars is something of a common refrain for the Faths’ philanthropy, which is explained in part by the couple’s overall giving strategy. In the early days of Fath giving, he sprinkled money into different buckets on a smaller scale. But over time, he started to realize that giving this way really wouldn’t move the needle. So instead, Fath gives big, but also gives with the intention to catalyze other giving. “Most gifts have to be transformative. They need angel investment. And then the institution has to be able to raise more money,” Fath said.
This was the strategy for the Faths’ support of Boys & Girls Club of Greater Cincinnati, the recipient of another $50 million gift from the couple in 2022 — the largest in the nonprofit’s 83-year history. The Faths made a smaller gift to Springer School and Center, a Cincinnati organization that serves children with disabilities.
Eschewing a foundation
Harry and Linda Fath have given away at least $405 million in gifts dating back to 2017. Remarkably, this giving has been going without a formal family foundation. “We’ve always been generous. We’ve decided ‘no foundation.’ Let’s pool our money to four or five causes versus 30 causes.” Part of this strategy has to do with Fath’s skepticism of such institutions. He notes that many Forbes 400 billionaires are not giving the sums of money he is able to give away — far beyond the minimum 5% payout requirement of a foundation.
“We don’t want a foundation. We’ve seen them being abused. When you set up a foundation, you’re saying, ‘I’m immortal,’” Fath said.
In the 1980s, Fath had a friend on the Cincinnati Opera board, so he joined that board — eventually becoming president. Linda Fath, meanwhile, is former chair of the Taft Museum Docents and was a Cincinnati Art Museum docent. Through the years, the couple have supported places like Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati Art Museum, and Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, where they made a $50 million pledge to support the zoo’s $150 million renovation, known as More Home to Roam. Fath’s focus on the zoo, again, has to do with supporting working class families, he says, who deserve enrichment not just during school, but far beyond.
Meanwhile, Harry Fath was the latest megadonor to embrace the cause of mental health, pledging $50 million to the Lindner Center of Hope in 2017. That move was driven in part by his nephew, who is a psychiatrist.
More recently, the Faths have broadened their scope out from the Cincinnati area toward global humanitarian efforts. This is another common theme — philanthropic families who’ve put a laser-focus on their home region in their initial giving often decide later to seek wider geographical impact. For the Faths, that means West Africa, which Harry Fath has visited several times.
“Back in 2013, my wife and I were watching “60 Minutes.” We saw a segment on Mercy Ships and couldn’t believe it. I went down to my office the next day and wrote a $100,000 check,” Fath said, adding that he got a call from founder Don Stephens soon after, inviting him to come and see the ship in person. Fath was quickly swept away by the nonprofit’s vision, and traveled with his daughter, who did missionary work in her 20s, to the continent.
“One thing that struck me is that these volunteers are the happiest human beings I’ve ever met,” Fath said, describing his experience in West Africa. A successful cleft palate operation moved him even more, and from there, the major giving really kicked off. The couple made a $50 million gift in 2018 toward building the Global Mercy, the world’s largest nongovernmental hospital ship, along with a $20 million gift to Mercy Ships in 2022.
Harry Fath is now in his 80s, and he and Linda Fath have four children. Though they are not Giving Pledge signatories, Fath has reportedly cited Warren Buffett as his inspiration to give away his fortune. Fath told me he has no plans to engage his children in the philanthropy he is working on. However, he did set up a model decades ago that makes them deep-pocketed funders to look out for down the line, too.
“I did what Sam Walton did. When I bought a property, I put a sliver of interest in each of the kids’ names. Over 40 years, their trust makes them have some serious money now in their own right. And I’m encouraging them to be generous,” Fath said. “But that doesn’t mean giving them a $400 million foundation.”
As for what comes next, Fath spoke of a huge boom in property values during the pandemic. But with the market easing, don’t expect Fath to give on the level he’s been giving for a few years. “I’m not Bill Gates. There’s a limit. I also don’t want to burden my own real estate. So I’m trying to get a certain amount of that out. But values can go down too, you know. We’ve obligated $500 million so far, paid $200 million of it already. We’re sort of right where we want to be right now. We will see what happens.”