NEW YORK – Craig Newmark talks about getting focused, even as he is momentarily distracted by his beloved birds flying away from the numerous feeders in his courtyard to go visit some of his Manhattan neighbors.
“I’m trying to be a bit more focused, because a lot of what I do has to do with defending the country,” said Newmark, best known as the founder of Craigslist, though, since 2016, his philanthropic work has stretched his influence well beyond expanding the world of classified ads onto the internet with his pioneering website.
“Better journalism is part of that,” he continued. “I learned in high school history that a trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy. Supporting vets and active service members and their families -- that protects the country. Cybersecurity protects the country and is actually something I know a little bit about.”
Newmark donated $81 million to those causes through the Craig Newmark Foundation and Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund in 2022, returning him to The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of biggest donors, The Philanthropy 50, released Tuesday.
“The only exception,” Newmark, 70, says with a nod to a painting of his beloved pigeon Ghostface Killah on his mantle, “is pigeon rescue. But again, I love birds, have a sense of humor, and I suspect that pigeons may become our replacement species.”
The Associated Press spoke with Newmark last week about what inspires his philanthropy and why he feels the need to give so urgently. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
Q: Does it mean something to you to be on The Philanthropy 50, to be one of the 50 biggest donors in the country?
A: It’s nice to be noticed and then it’s back to work. I’m pretty much a one-man shop. I coordinate a bunch of people helping me out so there’s always more to do.
Q: Can you talk about your donations from last year?
A: A lot of it was me stepping up in cybersecurity. Our nation is under threat from people who wish us harm. They’re attacking our systems. And it’s incumbent upon everyone, if they can, to play a role and fight back.
Q: You do a lot of your fighting back through the City University of New York, especially the journalism school.
A: CUNY, in general, I like a lot because it helped a lot of New Yorkers to get from lives with no money into the middle class and even better. That matters a lot. America, in a lot of ways, is about a strong middle class. The journalism school is about getting people of all sorts to represent what they’re about, to be fair in the news. The news needs to talk about everyone and usually it’s done best by people who represent one group or another. This is my clumsy way of saying it should be about fairness.
Q: Is that why you made a major donation to CUNY’s Center for Community Media, which includes the Black Media Initiative that supports outlets serving minorities?
A: I see need. And my contributions are money, influence and, perhaps the most difficult of contributions, getting out of people’s way. Very often, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I do know that it’s really important to get out of the way.
Q: Why is it so important to you to support veterans and their families?
A: Fifteen years ago, I’m at a lunch sitting next to a volunteer from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He talks a little bit about it and suddenly it all clicks in: There are people giving up our great deal to protect me and my family -- going overseas, maybe risk taking a bullet -- to protect me, so I should give back. And so I started doing so, focusing at first with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and then doing more in specific areas.
Q: In what way?
A: For example, in tech, I’m supporting programs which train vets and military spouses in cybersecurity. I’m just going to keep pushing in that area. But only as long as I live. After that, it’s over.
Q: You don’t expect Craig Newmark Philanthropies to continue after your death?
A: If you saw the latest Bob Woodruff Foundation fundraiser, they introduced their Hologram Craig and I’m currently in the process of uploading into that. But that’s mostly a joke. The need is enormous in the here and now, so I plan to spend everything during my lifetime and get a lot of good things in motion because I think our species and our civilization need to get through the next 20 years or so in good shape. So that’s where I’m spending my energies.
Q: In 2022, there was high inflation and recession worries, which caused some people to curb their giving. You were not one of those people. How come?
A: Because the country and the planet needs it. I’m focusing on areas where I see a great need. This is an “all hands on deck” situation. It is like World War II where everyone was expected to play a role. That’s what I will do… Any success I’ve had in my life has been by accidentally being in the right time and place. That makes me the Forrest Gump of the internet.
Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.