Joshua Mintz, J.D. '81: The Impact of Philanthropy

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Joshua Mintz

Joshua Mintz, J.D. '81 (photo by Jenny Abreu)

Joshua Mintz, J.D. '81, knows that philanthropy can have a powerful impact on the world. As Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, Mintz helps one of the nation's largest philanthropic foundations implement initiatives to improve the human condition.

"Foundations can take risks that are difficult for governments to take," he said. "They can also make grants or impact investments based on a long-term perspective, without having to worry about the next quarterly earnings report or an upcoming election."

Foundations do not replace government's ability to bring massive resources to bear on a social problem, but they can take on pilot projects and find solutions that could be implemented on a local, state, or national level.

While the MacArthur Foundation may be best known for its no-strings-attached "genius grants" to creative individuals, its philanthropic work encompasses many areas, including social justice, climate change, nuclear security, journalism, and the community-oriented Benefit Chicago initiative. "It's a pleasure for me to work with so many great people at our foundation who are dedicated to improving the human condition," he said.

A Focus on Teaching

Mintz grew up on Long Island, New York, but enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder when it came time to go off to college. "My older brother David lived there, and I fell in love with the University when I visited there," he said.

With his interest in history and current events, Mintz gravitated toward a career in education. As an undergraduate, he was a student-teacher at Boulder High School and taught in the Boulder School System for a year after earning his bachelor's degree in history and education.

A lifelong athlete, Mintz also spent plenty of time playing basketball and traveled to Israel in 1977 to explore a possible professional career. "It was a great experience for me, but I decided that my future lay in teaching, rather than basketball," he said. After returning to Boulder High on a one-year teaching contract, Mintz began to explore other options, including law school.

After taking the LSAT, Mintz applied to Miami Law and was accepted. "Miami was attractive to me for several reasons," he said. "Dean Soia Mentschikoff was a legend in academia, and my parents, Harold and Margaret Mintz, had moved to Boca Raton."

Mintz said that enrolling at Miami Law was one of the best decisions he ever made. "The professors, the students, and the learning environment were all great," he said.

While in law school, Mintz benefited from summer internships at Greenberg Traurig, and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft's offices in New York and Washington, D.C. After earning his J.D. degreemagna cum laude, in 1981, he joined Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago. "Having Dean Mentschikoff opened some doors for me, as she had taught at the University of Chicago before coming to Miami and was well known to many people in the bigger firms."

Mintz spent 13 years with Sidley Austin, the last four as a partner, specializing in commercial litigation and business reorganization, including real estate restructurings. As a partner, he was brought in to assist with the disposition of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's extensive real estate holdings in Florida.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the Foundation sold or donated about 100,000 acres on Florida's east coast for private development and public uses, including the John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in Jupiter. Using the proceeds, the Foundation created a $20 million fund at the Palm Beach and Martin County Community Foundation to support education, the environment, arts and culture, and community development in Palm Beach and Martin counties.

Joining the Foundation

In 1994, the MacArthur Foundation began looking for a new general counsel, and Mintz was ready for a change in his career. He took the position, and has guided the legal department since then.

"In the early 1990s, I had been traveling frequently for the law firm, and wanted to have more control over my life. While I thoroughly enjoyed my colleagues and the work at Sidley, I was also interested in working at a mission-based organization," Mintz said. He had also married and was starting a family with his wife, Marianne. Their son, Samuel, is now working in computer programming, and daughter, Johanna, is following in her father's footsteps, working at a small law firm in the not-for-profit sector.

After joining the MacArthur Foundation, Mintz became immersed in tax-exempt law, and became an active leader in the field of legal philanthropy. For instance, he served as a board member for the Donors Forum, and the Council on Foundations, and was Chairman of the Board of Security Council Reports, a charitable organization. He is also a board member of the Juvenile Protective Association, a not-for-profit providing counseling to children at risk and their families, and the Francis Parker School. 

At the Foundation, Mintz is a member of the executive leadership team that advises the president on strategy and counsels the board. He also coordinates the work of the MacArthur Advisory Services, which advises other foundations, corporate donors, and individual donors on a range of issues. That wide-ranging experience has helped Mintz work with other philanthropic partners, as collaboration is a crucial element of the Foundation's work.

For instance, Mintz was an active participant in a multi-foundation initiative to acquire the archives of Chicago's Johnson Publishing Company out of bankruptcy. The archives of Ebony and Jet and other magazines owned by that publisher provide an unparalleled story of the African-American experience in the United States. "Working with our partners, we were able to buy the archive out of the federal bankruptcy court, and plan to make this material available to the public," he said. The archives contain landmark photos including athletes like pitcher Satchel Paige, runner Jesse Owens as well as Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and civil rights leader Malcolm X's personal collection of photos, and thousands more historic images.

A Return to Teaching

For the past four years, Mintz has taught a one-week short course at Miami Law on "Emerging Forms of Philanthropy and the Role of Private Foundations in Effecting Social Change." He enjoys his return to teaching, which is an extension of the training he provides for the MacArthur Foundation's legal staff.

When his students ask for career advice, Mintz emphasizes the importance of gaining different experiences in law school. "Don't be afraid of getting out of your comfort zone," he says. "If something doesn't work, then try something else until you find a field that brings out your passion and commitment. You need to be the one who defines your success in life."

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