Larry Ellison, one of the world’s richest people, has struggled to figure out what to do with his fortune. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The Oracle billionaire has made a drastic decision yet again so he can focus on combating Covid-19.
Larry Ellison is abruptly shutting down the work of his charitable foundation, Recode has learned, yet another whiplash moment in the philanthropic history of one of the world’s richest people.
Ellison has decided to disband the team and program that worked for his sole philanthropy organization, the Larry Ellison Foundation, as part of an attempt to refocus his giving on combating the coronavirus, according to an email sent by the leader of one of Ellison’s grantees and obtained by Recode. Ellison will run that upcoming program through a “medical philanthropy” — one that does not currently exist. It is unclear what shape this new effort will take.
The sudden decision reverses at least two years of costly work by Ellison’s aides to plot a new path forward for the philanthropic efforts of the Oracle founder, who was seeking another chance to give away his $70 billion after decades of false starts and unmet promises.
Recode reported last week on Ellison’s blemished track record, including the fact that his foundation, which is based in the United Kingdom, was doing nothing publicly to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, Ellison has evidently decided to do over this do-over.
An email written by Ratna Viswanathan, the CEO of an Ellison grantee called Reach to Teach, reads:
A couple of days ago I was informed by [foundation head] Matthew [Symonds] that Larry has decided to focus on his philanthropic efforts on fighting Covid 19 which is being handled out of the US from where he runs his medical philanthropy. He has decided to disband the LEF London office and the current team leading the Foundation from London … The London LEF team is now working on winding down the London programme and office.
The announcement, marked “confidential,” was sent in early August to 10 subordinates of Viswanathan and obtained by Recode. Viswanathan, Symonds, and other Ellison aides did not return repeated requests for comment.
It makes sense that Ellison would feel compelled to invest his billions into dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, which has created a call-to-arms moment for the philanthropy sector. He obviously could not have predicted that crisis when he began to reboot his foundation in 2018. The demands today are different from what they were two years ago.
Yet it is still another remarkable change of heart. The closure of the London-based operation would be at least the third time that Ellison has, with little warning, shut down parts of his philanthropy program, leaving grantees in the lurch. In 2005, he decided one day to stop spending his money on researching infectious disease. And in 2013, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the cause, Ellison told aides out of nowhere to halt all new funding for anti-aging research, which had been his foremost philanthropic passion. So this fits a pattern.
After that decision in 2013, Ellison began embarking on a trek through the philanthropic wilderness, trying to determine where to spend his net worth — a figure that exploded in the ensuing years. In 2018, Ellison brought on a new executive director, tapped high-priced consultants, launched a six-month strategic review, renamed the foundation, moved its headquarters from the Bay Area to the United Kingdom, and hired as many as a dozen advisers. It was a complete and time-intensive overhaul and relaunch of what could be one of the world’s most important charities.
Now, that all appears to have been for naught.
The nonprofits that Ellison was backing, such as Reach to Teach, which educates rural students in India, may now have to scramble for new funding. Viswanathan said in her email to the nonprofit’s leadership that she was confident that Reach to Teach could survive until 2024, when the Ellison Foundation’s current grant expires, but that she will have to hire a fundraising director and consider a restructuring, even as she hopes that Ellison’s “soft spot” for the program, which he has funded since 2008, would give them the chance to receive Ellison funding again in the future.
Those in the foundation leadership “feel that he will return to these areas once there is a solution to address the pandemic and its disastrous fallout,” Viswanathan said.
Ellison has said nothing publicly about any efforts of his to deal with the coronavirus in a personal capacity. His most substantive work to date has been through his company, Oracle, which built and donated a database to the US Department of Health and Human Services to test the efficacy of various therapeutics for the infection. It is unclear, however, how widely used this database is, and epidemiologists have expressed concerns that it amounts to junk science because it does not use randomized-controlled experiments to measure the drugs’ impacts.
So it is not clear what Viswanathan is referring to when she speaks of Ellison’s “medical philanthropy” in the United States — he has not publicly funded new medical grants since 2013, when the philanthropy was called the Ellison Medical Foundation.
One possibility is that she was referring to the cancer research center that Ellison set up at the University of Southern California with $200 million in 2016. Ellison could be plotting to coordinate future Covid-19 work through that center, the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine. But Ellison has no formal role at the institute, which opened last year.
No matter the structure, in some ways Ellison appears to be circling back into his former self: trying to use his billions to forge medical breakthroughs, even if not to live forever.
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