Philanthropic Competition: The Pickens-Abraham Foundation

A reporter once asked me, “Do you consider yourself a Texan or a Oklahoman?”

I answered, “I’m both.”

“No, you can’t do that,” she said. “You have to choose.”

“No, I don’t,” I said. “Case closed.”

My mother, Grace Molonson Pickens, always told me to never forget where I came from. I was born in Holdenville, a small Oklahoma town, and moved to the Texas Panhandle when I was a teen. So both have always been part of who I am, and I’ve donated a good deal of money in both states.

But I’m a guy who believes in challenges over handouts. And I always love a little competition. I don’t want the other guy to do badly; I just want to challenge those I give to to have some skin in the game.

That’s true for me both in business and in other areas of my life. So when it comes to philanthropy, I believe a little competitive spirit can create better outcomes for everyone.

The T. Boone Pickens Foundation, based in Texas, has donated more than a billion dollars in grants supporting education and at-risk youth, medical research and services, athletics and corporate wellness, conservation and wildlife programs, entrepreneurship and a wide-range of public policy initiatives to this point. I’ve often challenged the recipients of my large-dollar philanthropic gifts to meet thresholds, such as raising an equivalent amount of money from other sources before the Pickens Foundation grant kicks in. I’ve done this in the past with $50 million commitments to both University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Another great example of that competitive spirit at work is the agreement I made in 2008 with Salem Abraham, an incredibly successful hedge fund trader whose family business, Abraham Trading Co., is located in the Moody Building in Canadian, Texas.

Salem trades global commodity futures using a strategy that relies in large part on the behavioral sciences and the mentality of crowds. I know a thing or two about trading, making millions for other people and myself during my career, but I have to admit I don’t know how Salem does it.

He has also been involved in land, oil, gas, water rights and real estate deals throughout the Panhandle. He and his wife, Ruth Ann, both grew up in Canadian and live there with their children.

Salem, Ruth Ann and I share a commitment to improve the economic and social fabric of Hemphill and Roberts Counties the best we can. I had worked with Canyon, Texas-based Opportunity Plan Inc. Educational Loans and Scholarships (OPI) in 1979 to establish the T. Boone Pickens Student Loan Fund. And since OPI played a role in Ruth Ann’s higher education, the Abrahams established OPI’s Salem and Ruth Ann Scholarship Fund in 2005.

So, when Salem approached me in 2008 about increasing my contributions to help Panhandle youth, I told him I would go in if he matched me dollar for dollar. We even added a competitive step to the process – we established a joint foundation with the caveat that whoever did better managing investment portfolios each year could dictate where the annual philanthropic gifts of our partnership went.

Old blood like me partnering with new blood like Salem, with a competitive underpinning, is really the ultimate philanthropic program. And the payoff is that it supports a framework of success — educational opportunities for Pandhandle youth who might not otherwise get the chance to attend college.

The Pickens-Abraham Foundation has distributed funds totaling $1.4 million to Roberts and Hemphill County youth projects, $900,000 of which has gone to college scholarships for Panhandle students through OPI.

We are proud that we’ve been able to provide opportunities for the leaders of tomorrow.

Read the press release announcing our 2017 scholarship winners:
Pickens-Abraham Foundation Donates $350,000 for Panhandle Schools, Scholarships in 2017; Past Winners Return to Area