Remembering Robert Alan Billstein Sr.
A philanthropist for climate action, who viewed his giving as part of his duty to invest in a brighter future for all.
In 1999, NRDC received $10 from Robert Alan Billstein Sr. That small gesture marked the beginning of a deep partnership between NRDC and the philanthropist, reflecting Robert Sr.’s increasing devotion to supporting solutions for the intensifying climate crisis. Passionately committed to addressing social issues, Robert remained dedicated to giving back to others until he passed away on May 8, 2021, just one month before his 99th birthday. Throughout his life, he supported the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and various community-based charities, in addition to NRDC. He leaves behind an incredible legacy of giving, impacting generations with his generosity and goodwill.
A native of Toledo, Ohio, Robert returned to his hometown after graduating from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He worked as an accountant and later formed a steel corporation before entering the philanthropy world, where he began supporting several causes, including civil rights movements, support for the disabled, and, of course, the environmental movement.
The Billstein family notes that Robert’s concern for the environment grew sharply after Donald Trump was elected president. When the Trump administration began overturning critical protections on everything from clean air to national monuments, it became clear to Robert that he needed to zero in on climate action. He recognized the interconnectivity of the social issues he supported throughout his life and that progress depended on a healthy, viable planet to support humankind. While it seemed like a drastic shift at the time, Robert’s ultimate purpose for engaging with philanthropy hadn’t changed—supporting climate action meant supporting people too.
Tasked with a new planet-saving mission, the Billstein family began contributing regularly to NRDC in 2017 and became leadership donors by 2020. Robert viewed fossil fuels as one of the greatest threats to the climate and appreciated NRDC’s dedication to taking on big polluters and their powerful allies head-on. Additionally, he was encouraged by NRDC Action Fund’s work and its political influence in Washington, D.C. He believed no significant change could occur without the backing of lawmakers.
One of Robert’s biggest influences in getting involved with philanthropy was his father, Alfred Billstein. According to his family, Alfred was a “boots-on-the-ground supporter of social justice issues” and was heavily involved in charitable efforts across the country. He instilled in his son the need to acknowledge their family’s privileges and to give back. The mindset with which both Billsteins viewed this work was less as charity and more importantly as their duty to help build and invest in a brighter future for all. On top of that, Robert wanted to develop a sustainable model of altruism, where his impact would outlast him.
His family remembers him as someone who taught them not what to think but how to think. He was one to never come to conclusions easily himself, and he passed along the importance of critical thinking and a willingness to learn onto his four children and eight grandchildren. One of his greatest accomplishments in life was to be able to watch his kids turn into the kind of people he had always striven to be himself: aware, principled, “a little weird,” and resolutely optimistic.
Kendra Foley, NRDC’s director of development in the Midwest, has gotten to know the Billstein family through her work. “Bob Billstein Sr. showed great leadership with his philanthropy,” she says. “He didn’t just make a major financial investment in the work of NRDC; he also instilled in his family the importance of taking climate action.” Each of Robert’s descendants has their own passionate sense of responsibility for the environment, varying from animal rights and ocean conservation to pollution, recycling, and global warming. They are determined to honor and build upon Robert’s legacy in tackling the climate crisis, knowing that his interest in the cause was in part a gift to them, an investment in the future of his descendants.
The Billstein family adds, “We’ll keep learning, keep hoping, and in true Bob Sr. fashion, continue to accomplish the seemingly impossible with the most charming blend of humility and humor, in all aspects of life.”
NRDC thanks Robert Sr. and the whole Billstein family for their tremendous support of our work.
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