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“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
This story first appeared in the October 15, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The proverbial saying informs Ralph Lauren’s philanthropy, from the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention to his Pink Pony Campaign and various other programs he has implemented across America over the years. And just like the proverb, Lauren isn’t one to just blindly sign a check for a cause. His version of helping means setting up structured programs that can help improve the cause for the long term.
Case in point: Lauren’s 9,000-square-foot Cancer Care center in Harlem. It opened in 2003, two years after Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. pledged a $5 million leadership grant to support the development of such a center. The commitment came after a meeting with physician Harold Freeman, who told the designer of the problems in communities like Harlem and made his case for patient navigation — meaning trained individuals who can guide the cancer-stricken within their own communities through the medical system — at the 20-minute meeting. “He said the simple words, ‘I will help you,'” Freeman recently recalled. “He was a man who meant what he said.”
Oscar Cohen, who has been a friend of Lauren’s since childhood, is the executive director of the Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation, which was launched in 2001. He recalled how touched Lauren was by Freeman’s words.
“He really isn’t interested in getting his name on buildings, and doing philanthropy for the sake of philanthropy,” Cohen said. “If he is not moved by a story, he is not interested in being known as a philanthropist. He is interested in wanting to give back in a meaningful and impactful manner. There has to be a story that he will get behind and support.”
Cohen remembered the moment before the center’s dedication, when he was walking across the street from the center to the park where the ceremony was held. “Ralph said, ‘I think this is the most important thing I have ever done,'” Cohen said. “He is very moved by authenticity. Ralph is all about high standards and expectation and honesty. If it’s not real, he doesn’t respond.”
At the time of the opening, Lauren told WWD, “This did not come out of philanthropy. This did not come out of a master plan. This did not come out of publicity. This did not come out of a fashion show. This came out of knowing someone who died. I couldn’t save her, but I am committed now, and that commitment has gone on for 15 years. This is not the end. This is the beginning of a long fight for all of us.”
Since the opening, the center, which launched as a partnership between Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and North General Hospital, has grown significantly, and is scheduled to add a colonoscopy suite this December. Freeman also recently received a $2.5 million leadership grant from the Amgen Foundation to create the Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Training Institute. It will be a part of Lauren’s center, and aims to teach the patient navigation idea for cancer centers elsewhere.
“We are also about to embark on a feasibility study to determine the efficacy of replicating the Ralph Lauren Cancer Center in other parts of the country,” Cohen said. “We have not made a commitment to do that, but want to make a study to determine whether it is prudent to do it. That’s how good we feel about the center.”
Lauren’s efforts to help the fight against cancer have been a key mission for almost two decades, and Polo’s vice president of corporate affairs and philanthropy Bette-Ann Gwathmey is closely involved in these initiatives. His motivation to help in the area was triggered in the late-Eighties when the designer’s friend, Washington Post fashion editor Nina Hyde, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 1989, Lauren and Washington Post chair Katherine Graham cofounded the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research at Georgetown University in Washington. Hyde’s fate — she died a year later at the age of 57 — also inspired his motivation to take a leadership position with the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Fashion Targets Breast Cancer initiative, which launched in 1994 and has since raised millions of dollars for breast cancer charities.
In 2000, Lauren launched the Pink Pony Campaign, a vehicle for raising money for cancer care and prevention in medically underserved communities. With sales of special Pink Pony products, he has so far been able to raise about $4 million to benefit numerous institutions, including his Cancer Center, the Nina Hyde Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and North General Hospital, the American Hospital in Paris, Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
This month, Polo-sponsored golf champion Morgan Pressel, whose mother died of breast cancer, is taking part in a special Pink Pony initiative. Polo created a Pink Pony shirt for her, and various sponsors have pledged to donate money for each birdie she makes. It is expected to raise $300,000 for the Boca Raton Community Hospital Lynn Cancer Institute in Florida.
Lauren’s philanthropy extends beyond cancer charities, however. In the mid-Nineties, Polo made a $13 million contribution to the Save America’s Treasures initiative, $10 million of which is earmarked toward preserving the 1812 Star-Spangled Banner that inspired the American national anthem, with $3 million aimed at providing free space in various publications to support awareness of the initiative. Old Glory is housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Polo established the American Heroes Fund, which made donations to the Twin Towers Fund, the September 11 Fund, the Red Cross, New York Police and Fire Widows and Children’s Fund the New York City Police Foundation, and also provides college scholarship money for children of victims who perished in the attacks.
Lauren’s foundation has also adopted a school program, and works with a total of seven schools in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and West Virginia. The help ranges from special volunteer programs to financial aid to implement programs. For instance, Polo bestowed the Harvey Milk School in New York with a $50,000 grant to provide HIV/AIDS prevention services.
“In the field of philanthropy, there is something known as expressive giving, and something known as instrumental giving,” Cohen said. “Expressive giving is where we write a check and it makes us feel good, but we’re not sure exactly what it will do. Instrumental giving has this very focused purpose. There is a means of bringing about some change. While Ralph and the company will do both, he is really focused on instrumental giving, where your gift will bring about a change.”