Don’t Leave Home Without It: A Quick Look at Ken Chenault’s Philanthropy

Kenneth and Kathryn Chenault. Photo: lev radin/shutterstock

Kenneth Chenault, 72, is one of the first African Americans to become CEO of a Fortune 500 firm as the long-running chief executive of American Express from 2001 to 2018. He’s estimated to have made more than $370 million during his years at the helm of AMEX, per the Financial Times. Chenault is currently chairman and managing director of venture capital firm General Catalyst. His wife Kathryn, a foundation executive and lawyer, joined the United Negro College Fund in 1984, where she served as vice president of national, corporate and foundation programs.

Unsurprisingly, one of the couple’s philanthropic interests is education. That includes support for HBCUs, like other Black donors we’ve profiled of late. In 2022, for instance, the Chenaults made a $2 million gift to Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The Chenaults don’t have a formal charitable vehicle as far as we can tell, but instead give individual donations as a couple. And in recent years, the Chenaults are showing signs of ramping up their giving, perhaps as Ken Chenault himself has more bandwidth for endeavors outside of business. Here’s a bit more about the couple’s gift to Howard, some of their other work, and what to expect going forward.

Education, including support of HBCUs, is a top priority

In 2022, the Chenaults made a $2 million gift to Howard University in memory of their longtime friend and mentor, the late Vernon Jordan. Jordan was a civil rights lawyer who later became a close advisor to President Bill Clinton, and was also part of the team of lawyers that desegregated the University of Georgia. While he didn’t attend Howard University himself, Ken Chenault’s parents were Howard alumni and commencement speakers. The Chenaults’ seven-figure gift will support an endowed chair at the Howard University School of Law.

In addition, the couple have given steady support to Morehouse College in Atlanta, from which Chenault’s late father, Hortenius, a dentist, graduated. The couple has also supported the United Negro College Fund, where Kathryn, a former practicing attorney, was employed in the past.

The couple have also made their mark at educational institutions outside the world of HCBUs. This year, they made a $2 million gift to Ken Chenault’s undergraduate alma mater Bowdoin College, the bulk of which will be used to establish an endowed fellowship named after educator Herman S. Dreer, class of 1910, who was the second Black man to graduate from the Maine liberal arts school. The Chenaults have also supported Pratt Institute, where Kathryn has long served on the board and received an honorary degree. In 2020, they made a $1 million gift to Pratt to establish scholarships to support diversity in the School of Architecture. Only 2% of licensed architects in the country are Black, according NOMA or the National Association of Minority Architects.

The family has also supported Waldorf School of Garden City, which Ken Chenault attended, and Harlem Children’s Zone, which is steered by fellow Bowdoin grad Geoffrey Canada.

Arts and culture is another interest

The Chenaults are founding donors of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, having donated at least $1 million prior to the museum’s opening. Chenault served as chair of the Smithsonian Institution’s Advisory Council for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Kathryn, meanwhile, has an interest in supporting educational institutions, the arts and expanding opportunities for young people. She’s a trustee of Studio Museum in Harlem, which the couple supports. Other grantees have included WNET, Lincoln Center for Performing Arts (Kathryn is on the board), MoMA and Central Park Conservancy.

The couple were also among the initial supporters of Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice Fund, which just sunsetted after allocating $125 million to over 200 artists and organizations over six years. Art for Justice melded support for activism and the arts in support of criminal justice reform goals.

Social justice and looking ahead

Ken and Kathryn Chenault’s philanthropic giving also extends to other areas, including health, foreign affairs and social justice. The Chenaults have given at least $1 million to Hospital for Special Surgery. They’ve also supported places like the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2022, the couple made a $1 million pledge to Concordance in St. Louis, a holistic program focused on lowering reincarceration rates. The gift was made in support of the First Chance campaign, focused on scaling the organization’s reentry program to 11 additional U.S. cities over the next five years.

At the time, Ken Chenault said, “To achieve a real, lasting change for racial equity in our community, we need progress and persistence. Systemic racism has obstructed many Black Americans from a real first chance at basic opportunity. Innovative approaches that have a multigenerational impact on families are critical to ensuring that individuals in this country truly have that first chance — at stability, education and success.”

Chenault’s sons Kenneth Jr. and Kevin Chenault, meanwhile, cofounded the Anti Racism Fund (ARF) on the heels of George Floyd’s murder and other deaths at the hands of police. ARF provides capital from a pool of donations to organizations working in the realm of health and wellness, community outreach and social justice advocacy, justice system reform, and educational parity.

This kind of work could be a sign of even more substantial progressive giving down the line, both by the couple and the broader family.

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