Gilbert Mead, 1930 – 2007

Gilbert Mead,
with his wife Jaylee

The Washington region suffered a tremendous loss this week with the death of Gilbert Mead, a philanthropist who, with his wife Jaylee, contributed over $50 million to theaters in our area, including $35 million to Arena Stage. The couple also formed the Mead Family Foundation in 1989, with a focus on education, children and youth, and strengthening families. His son, Rob Mead, served on the steering committee of Washington Grantmakers’ Washington AIDS Partnership, and Jaylee served on the Board of Washington Grantmakers from 1998 to 2004.  

An obituary detailing some of Mr. Mead’s many contributions to Greater Washington ran today in the Washington Post. A February profile in the Chronicle of Philanthropy provides additional insight into the Meads’ philanthropic goals:

Board membership [for Mr. Mead’s children in the Mead Family Foundation] was conditional on making a $10,000 gift to the foundation each year — a requirement that Mr. and Mrs. Mead hold themselves to as well.

“It’s our feeling that when you give some of your own money to something, you take more interest and pride in it, and are more willing to help see how it’s operated,” says Mrs. Mead. 

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At first, they thought about their giving largely in terms of leaving gifts to specific organizations in their wills.

“Then Jay and I at some point said, ‘Well, you know, it’s so much more fun to give it away while you’re living,'” says Mr. Mead.

That realization completely changed the trajectory of their philanthropy. Now, “we have very little in our will to anybody as a bequest,” says Mrs. Mead. “People are going to be very disappointed if they’re counting on anything.”

Mr. Mead laughs as his wife says this. But then, after a moment, he adds, “That was probably one of the most important decisions we ever made.”

* * * * *

Eight years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Mead and his children set up a junior board to help encourage the Mead grandchildren, who then ranged in age from 11 to 21, to start thinking about giving.

The children could each make a grant of up to $1,000 to any type of organization or charitable project they wanted, but they had to write the proposal themselves and present it to the foundation board.

* * * * *

The couple carefully structured their [Arena Stage] contribution — which Arena says is the largest ever made to a regional theater — to encourage other donors to support the campaign as well.

“We don’t want to be the single big donor in the bunch,” says Mr. Mead. “We’ll consider a large gift, but what we have always insisted is that that large gift is conditional upon encouraging other individuals to respond.”

When fund raisers started seeking money for the campaign, Mr. and Mrs. Mead pledged an outright gift of $5-million and said that they would pledge an additional $10-million if other trustees together committed an equal amount, which they did.

Then in 2005, Arena officials went back to the Meads to ask for an extra pledge of $35-million…The Meads said they would be willing to match $15-million to $20-million in new commitments made to the campaign in the next year…

“Having worked with Gil on two challenges, if it had been $14.9-million, it would have been off,” Stephen Richard, Arena’s executive director, says good-naturedly, sitting with the Meads as they discussed their philanthropy. “When Gil makes a deal, he makes a deal.”