NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Henry “Hank” Paulson, Jr. finished his tenure as the U.S.’s 74th Secretary of the Treasury in January 2009, he put a capstone on his finance career and committed himself to another life-long passion: protecting the environment.
Paulson, now 71, was chief executive of Goldman Sachs before he joined the government. He served at the same time as chairman of the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit based in New York. He now is running the Paulson Institute, a think tank dedicated to U.S.-China relations as they pertain to the economy and the environment.
Meanwhile, his wife Wendy Paulson, 69, oversees the Bobolink Foundation, the family’s conservation charity and has served in leadership roles on both national and state chapters of the Nature Conservancy. The Paulsons recently spoke with Reuters about the lessons they have learned concerning wealth, philanthropy and marriage.
Q: Hank, where did you learn your work ethic?
HP: I grew up on a working farm. It was small, a hundred acres, but we had cows and pigs and chickens and sheep and a vegetable garden. I spent hours pulling weeds, hoeing, feeding the horses, cleaning out the stalls. My dad was a tough taskmaster. I always worked, but we also had fun.
Q: Wendy, you were raised in a military family. Was your father similarly tough?
WP: My father was in the Marine Corps, but he was not a drill sergeant. Just the opposite - incredibly liberal-minded, committed to education. It’s where I got my love of teaching and being outdoors.
Q: What attitudes did your parents have about money?
HP: I grew up with a strong set of values - and one was never judging someone by how much money they had. Barrington, Illinois is a rural community - there are farms, the middle class, and a group of wealthy people who lived there, who hung around the country club. I never cared about money. When I was at school, I never wanted a car. I was focused on sports, studies, camping, being outdoors.
Q: You’ve been married for 48 years. What advice can you share?
HP: Wendy and I both like to be in wild, beautiful spots - we’re committed to conservation. And we like to get things done. I prefer to work at the policy level, on trying to fix flawed government policies. Wendy runs our foundation and prefers grassroots initiatives. We don’t do the same things, but we collaborate, share ideas, and work toward the same objective - protecting our planet’s ecosystem.
Q: How do you decide where to give your money?
WP: Our giving is focused on conservation. We tend to give where we’re personally involved, where we admire the people and where we’re directly engaged in the work. I guess I’d call it experiential giving.
Q: How do you get involved?
WP: In Barrington, Illinois, when we started our family, I became the Nature Lady and taught students about local nature - red-bellied woodpeckers, smooth green snakes, whatever we could find. That put me in touch with people in the conservation world.
I began to get involved in boards. When we moved to New York, I started leading bird walks in Central Park, and helped start a program called For the Birds in the public schools. When we moved to Chicago, I helped start a similar program, Birds in My Neighborhood. I love opening eyes to the natural world.
Q: What is your advice to people who are figuring out how they can best give back?
HP: Everyone wants to make a difference - that’s where happiness comes from. So you say, where do you have a comparative advantage? What do you enjoy? The word passion gets over-used today, but it’s their passion. That’s the biggest gift you can give someone.
Q: What did you teach your children about money as they grew up?
WP: When they were young, well-meaning relatives were showering the kids with things, and it drove me nuts. So for Christmas one year, we took the kids to a barrier island and we brought no gifts. Every year since then we’ve traveled to beautiful, natural spots — an experience, rather than things.
Q: Now that your children are grown up and married, what lessons do you hope they pass on to their kids?
WP: That education and diverse experience matter. That caring for others and for the planet matters. Learning, being good, doing good.
Editing by Beth Pinsker, Lauren Young and Andrew Hay