Philanthropist Dick Grace shows why everyone can do good things
Jurriaan Kamp| November 2006 issue
Dick Grace wants to do good. The 68-year-old retired stockbroker and owner of a small and successful vinery in Napa Valley, California, lives by a simple motto. In his own words: “I look for problems to solve and for needs to fulfill.” While that sounds simple, for Grace it sums up the hard-learned lessons of a long and complicated life. Up until 18 years ago his main objective was to fulfill his own needs. Now Grace dedicates a large portion of the proceeds from his successful vinery to ease the plight of children in many parts of the world.
Dick Grace’s story is an example to those who think and talk about making a better world, but who all too often don’t do it because they’re incapable of looking beyond their own anxieties and needs. His story is even an example to the leading “do-gooders” of our time: Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. Dick Grace doesn’t just give money to children who need it; he also—above all—gives himself.
As Grace sees it, personal involvement is the key to successful philanthropy. It’s like the difference between the millions spent on foreign aid, which often go to waste, and the smaller sums devoted to microcredit—a more small-scale, human, effective means of combatting poverty. This is precisely why, Grace believes, you don’t have to be wealthy to do good. “You don’t need just money for philanthropy. It begins with looking at the homeless on the street and acknowledging their humanity, not letting them become invisible. It doesn’t cost anything, but it means a lot,” he says.
Dick Grace grew up on the outskirts of Oakland, California, part of a traditional family in which rivalry and competition were considered core values for success. His parents never travelled outside the United States and everyone remotely related to his family and friends was Republican. A conservative upbringing led him to join the U.S. Marines. “I wanted to test myself, prove myself, show I was macho,” he remembers. In the Marines, he discovered the importance of discipline, loyalty and decisiveness. Armed with those values, he would undoubtedly have ended up in Vietnam during the 1960s—“I would have done what I had been taught to do”—if an injury in a football game hadn’t cut his military career short. He decided then to become a stockbroker, seeing it as the next best thing to being a warrior. “I liked risk. I liked to test myself. I was always looking for short-term success. I was not an investor; I was a speculator.” That urge to compete, bordering on fanaticism, drove Grace into a hectic, materialistic life in which alcohol and bouts of depression played ever-growing roles.
Planting his first vinery more than 30 years ago was an early attempt to find a better balance in his life. The idea came when Grace’s family bought a house in Napa Valley to flee the cocktail circuit and golf games that defined their life in San Francisco. But initially the new hobby was primarily about supporting the ego of Dick Grace, whose name he proudly displayed on the labels of his wine bottles.
Paradoxically, alcohol is what ultimately got him where he needed to go. After many failed attempts to gain control over his drinking, Grace finally went to Alcoholics Anonymous. The first two months in the program he asked himself during the weekly meetings what he, Dick Grace, owner of a successful vinery and senior vice-president of a renowned brokerage, was doing in a place like that. “But after two months I realized that I, too, was simply an alcoholic.” From that moment, the deep discussions in his AA groups suddenly began to have meaning. “I thought the whole world revolved around me,” he remembers, “until someone in the group said: ‘You’ll start to believe that there is a god… and he’s not you.’”
Grace found his spiritual home in Buddhism. “It could have been a church. But I’ve always had trouble with the concept that humans are bad and can only become good when they join a particular persuasion. Buddhism offers me the values—which I think are Christian—without the restraints of a religion.”
Eighteen years and six months ago—“in six days, to be exact,” says Grace, who still keeps careful track—the Napa wine baron drank his last glass. Thanks to sobriety and the compassion he found in Buddhism, Dick Grace began to embody the meaning of his last name. And then he met Anthony Frazer.
Grace had donated wine for a benefit auction sponsored by Magic Moments, an organization that helps fulfill the dreams of gravely ill children. He decided to visit 9-year-old Anthony Frazer, who was hospitalized in Birmingham, Alabama, himself. Anthony sat for 20 minutes on his lap, and for Grace, that was a divine experience. Fifteen years later he says, eyes tearing: “Anthony turned all those values I had read so much about into reality for me. He didn’t say a thing. He simply radiated love.”
From then on, Grace phoned Anthony every Sunday evening until the boy died from cancer five months later. And Dick Grace had found his calling: He would help children. And wine would be his instrument.
Together with his wife Ann—for 47 years his anchor and compass—he set up the Grace Family Foundation. Part of the profits from the vinery go to the foundation, which also receives support from dedicated clients. Thanks to those funds, projects for children are financed in the U.S., Mexico, Thailand, India and the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, but primarily in the cradle of Buddhism: Nepal and Tibet.
Money, however, is only part of the contribution. According to Dick Grace, helping is something you primarily do yourself. That’s why he and his wife travel to Asia at least three times a year. The core of their philanthropic philosophy lies in personal involvement and effort. That’s why he also makes sure the foundation never has more than $250,000 U.S. (197,000 euros) on hand; he couldn’t accompany any further giving with personal attention. (In addition, Grace regularly donates wine to auctions for other good causes. Grace’s conservative estimate is that his wine has raised more than $15 million U.S.—12 million euros—at charity events over the past 12 years.)
Even though he’s now an outspoken critic of the United States’ military power politics and displays a self-designed sticker on his bumper with the vividly coloured letters “ABB” (Anybody But Bush), he is still thankful for lessons taught in the military. The Marine in him is still clearly visible when he talks about all the work that needs to be done; proudly, he says, “I’ve learned never to walk past a problem.”
Recently, while Grace was visiting a village in a very remote part of Tibet, he came across exhausted and underfed twins who were dying of lack of nourishment in a hostile environment. He asked about the nearest hospital, which was several days away. The twins would never have survived the onset of winter. It is at these moments that this former Marine is at his best. He managed the impossible, by working around the bureaucracy and overcoming the harsh reality of this remote corner of the world, arranging for a car that transported the children to the hospital which they reached safely three days later. The twins are doing well. Grace pulls out photographs of the children, showing them when he found them, undernourished, and as they are now—the picture of health.
There are a lot of photographs. Dick Grace likes to capture his experiences. Early one morning in his home office we flip through a pile of photo albums over a cup of tea, while outside, the sun is slowly drying the dew on the grapes in the surrounding vinery. Each picture has a story and Grace quickly relates narratives of his travels and experiences. Then he falls silent: “I’ve learned more from ill and handicapped children than from my successful contemporaries. I’ve skied with the blind, ridden horses with the handicapped and hugged with the lepers. These are my most fulfilling experiences. Some say what I do is altruism. I wonder if it’s not selfish. I am grateful to all those children for helping me. I can’t wait to go back to Tibet.”
We leaf through more pictures and Grace pauses at one showing a classroom full of children. “Here at this school in the Indian state of Kerala, the number of students has swelled from 50 to 115 because we were able to get all the children a hot meal every day for just $5,400 a year.” This wasn’t the result of a tidy grant application to the Grace Family Foundation. It was thanks to Grace’s fieldwork. In the course of his travels, he runs into problems and—together with the local people—he devises solutions.
“I’ve given up on every ‘policy’,” says Grace. “Whether it involves politics or religious or corporate policy, it most often gets bogged down in bureaucracy. I’m sorry to have to conclude this, but it’s a fact. I believe that the ideal number of members of a board of directors is one. I run our foundation alone from my home. I know that as one person, I can change the fate of one family at a time.”
And everyone can do it. That is Dick Grace’s message. No one has to wait to be “wealthy,” start a foundation or set out a policy to take action. People are never too poor or too inexperienced to be effective on their own. The pages full of beaming young faces in Grace’s photo albums illustrate just how much good one person can do in the world, in such simple ways. “It makes me angry when people say there’s nothing they can do. Everyone has to make an agreement with him- or herself to do the right thing. It’s about a pact with yourself and not with the church so you can get into heaven. I would encourage you to accomplish rather than contemplate. There are too few people who really make use of their talents and energy.”
Grace is driven by the sense that so much remains to do in the world. “Our wine is sold in restaurants for as much as $600 a bottle. I feel ambivalent about that. With that kind of money I can house, feed, clothe and educate a child in India or Tibet for a year. As long as that painful gap exists, there will be crime and terrorism in the world. Along with globalization comes a responsibility we all carry to battle injustice. Our home has just gotten bigger.”
The clock is ticking. As our discussion ends, George W. Bush will still have 910 days, 11 hours and 23 minutes left as president of the United States, according to Grace’s special presidential countdown calculator. Change is calling out to us and Dick Grace is ready. Although, as he says himself, he has “never been accused of shyness,” he is also not so different than anyone you can compare yourself against. “I don’t have any special talents. I don’t stand out in anything. I stumble along my life’s path. Alcoholism and depression are showing me the way. I look upon these as my luxuries, for they—like the children—became my teachers.”
Dick Grace speaks, and lives, with a deep authenticity that leaves us feeling we could do what he does. On his wrist he wears a watch he has designed and frequently gives away as a gift. On the face, around the logo of his vinery are the words: “Be Optimystic.” The “y” may well be a reference to that elusive higher plane. This is the message that drives him. A directive to himself. And to everyone else. To believe in the good that must be done.