Philanthropist of the Month: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield


When we started Ben and Jerry’s in 1978 we had no business experience and no money, so we sure weren’t thinking about philanthropy. We were worried about making the business successful. We had both failed at other things we had tried: Ben at being a potter and Jerry at going to medical school. Our dream was to open an ice cream store in a nice warm college town. But all of those towns already had ice cream stores, so we ended up in Burlington, Vermont. From the very beginning, before we were even profitable, we always gave back. We sponsored events, like free ice cream day, outdoor movies and street festivals. Our business was ice cream, but our real mission was building community, making a difference, and having fun. Maybe that’s why our customers stuck with us through those long, cold Vermont winters. Two years later, when we started making money, it was only natural to support our loyal community with grants.

For the first five years or so our giving was a little haphazard- we gave to whatever turned up and felt important. In 1985 when we made our first public stock offering, our lawyers told us that we needed to tell the shareholders how much we were giving away, so we wouldn’t get sued. We wanted to give 10% of the profits away, but the underwriters refused, so we compromised at 7.5%. The Ben and Jerry’s Foundation was created to distribute these gifts.

In the beginning, Ben and Jerry’s Foundation was pretty traditional, with an advisory board setting goals, implemented by the foundation staff. Pretty early on we brought in a group of advisors to help us answer some foundation policy questions, like how long we should fund a group and what our average grant size should be. They said those policy details didn’t matter much, but what might be really powerful would be to engage Ben and Jerry’s employees in grant decisions. We really liked that idea: we figured it would make Ben and Jerry’s a great place to work and connect more people with giving back. So we created three employee grant committees. It’s been amazing; for some of the employees the grant committee work is the most meaningful part of their job. And they make really great grants! There is still a small board of trustees, but we basically just sign off on the employee’s decisions.

The foundation isn’t the only way the company gives back.  Since the end of the Cold War, Ben and Jerry’s has used its brand to raise awareness of important issues. In 1991 we introduced the Peace Pop to draw attention to the cost of the US nuclear weapons program. When Unilever bought Ben and Jerry’s in 2000, there were some complicated legal and emotional issues, but one thing we feel good about is that the corporate mission and the foundation didn’t change. The foundation is still fully funded, using a very similar formula, and the employees are still making awesome grants. And Ben and Jerry is still running campaigns, like Get the Dough Out to raise awareness about money and politics. We don’t make those decisions anymore, but we made sure that the culture of giving back and making a difference would live on.

In addition to the grantmaking at the foundation, we each do our own independent giving.  We care about a lot of the same things, but we each have different styles and priorities. Ben is the big chunk guy. He gets deeply involved in creative campaigns. Right now, he is focused on getting money out of politics. He’s developed to get tens of thousands of people stamping US currency with messages like “The system isn’t broken, its fixed.” Jerry funds more projects with small chunks of money, and tends to fund within his community. For example, he is excited about the Vermont Workers Center, which is creating a road map for Vermont to transition to a single payer health care system, based on the principle that health care is a human right.

When we started out, people thought we were nuts. No one had ever heard of socially responsible businesses. We went to the library once to look for resources about creating a community building business, and there was nothing there. Now, there is a whole room in the library for books on green business, sustainable business, triple bottom line, B-Corp, worker cooperatives, etc.… People now know they have a choice about how they want to run their business.  They know a business can be more than a money making machine, it can be a positive force for the community, the environment, the workers and the world. It feels nice to have been part of that change.

We’ve known each other since high school and we’ve shared a brand and a business for more than 30 years. We feel lucky that we still like to hang out, take bike rides or eat meals together. We both appreciate each other’s strengths and personality: Ben gets things started and Jerry gets things done. But we both build community, have fun and make a difference.


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