You might not know how Rob Hale became a billionaire, but you almost certainly have heard that he and his wife, Karen, have been giving away hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Hales captured our charitable imagination starting a decade ago with the annual “Saving by Shaving” fund-raiser that started out as a dare. Rob Hale, the cofounder and CEO of Granite Telecommunications, could no longer bear the sight of an employee’s ZZ Top-style beard so he made him an offer. “If you shave that thing off,” he said, “I will give $10,000 to Dana-Farber.”
What happened next was extraordinary: Another employee offered to shave off his hair if Hale would donate $1,000 to cancer research. Soon, hundreds of employees wanted the same deal. Today, more than 10,000 people have participated, including Tom Brady and Governor Charlie Baker, raising $46 million toward fighting cancer.
Turns out that was just the beginning of the Hales’ head-turning philanthropy. Last year, Hale delivered the commencement speech at Quincy College and surprised each of the 490 graduates with $1,000. There was only one string attached: Keep $500 for yourself, and give the rest to a person or an organization in need.
Somehow, this year the Hales managed to outdo themselves. The Boston couple set out to donate $52 million in 2022, not in one lump sum but $1 million every week. The money would be a surprise to the charitable organization, many based in Massachusetts, and each would get a call from Rob or Karen about the gift. (No application was needed.)
Some of the grants went to familiar institutions such as Year Up and the Boys & Girls Club, but much of the money, starting at $100,000 but most for $1 million, was steered to a variety of smaller nonprofits, including Save the Manatee Club, Sunshine Farm Sanctuary, Safe House Project, and InnerCity Weightlifting.
The gifts broke fund-raising records for the organizations that operate on shoestring budgets and allowed them to create endowments that would sustain them for the foreseeable future. The Hales’ unconventional giving approach has enabled them to support close to 90 nonprofits this year.
Just about every call has been emotional. “I would say most people cry, and to be honest so have I,” says Rob, sitting at a conference table at Granite’s Quincy headquarters. “It’s very cool when you think, Hey, we’re helping people who are going to help other people, now and forever.”
The Hales’ fortune comes from Rob’s wildly successful, privately-held company that manages telecommunication services for businesses operating in multiple locations—think CVS and Nike. Founded in 2002, Granite Telecommunications has grown to 2,500 employees, including 1,500 in Quincy, and generates about $1.8 billion in annual revenue.
Forbes magazine pegs Hale’s net worth at $5 billion, earning him a spot on this year’s annual ranking of the 400 richest Americans. While this is the first year Hale has been on the list (No. 202), he has been a billionaire since 2015. “To be a kid from Northampton and to have all those zeros next to your name, it’s unimaginable,” he says.
He also knows what it’s like to lose it all. Riding the 1990s dot-com boom, Hale took his first company, Network Plus, public, and in 1999, at the age of 33, he became a billionaire. The tech bubble soon burst, and three years later, Network Plus went bankrupt. “I officially finally lost all of that, every penny of it,” he says. “That’s a lesson you never forget.”
The Hales plan to give away the majority of their wealth. So far they’ve donated about $300 million. “Karen and I are blessed to have plenty. We’re keenly aware of that,” Hale says. “We subscribe to Maya Angelou’s philosophy: ‘To those who are given much, much is expected.’”
The couple have written enormous checks, the kind that come with building-naming rights: $50 million each to best-in-class Boston Children’s Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and together with his mother, Judy Hale, another $50 million to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which Rob believes will eradicate pancreatic cancer.
Last year they donated $30 million to his alma mater, Connecticut College, to support financial aid, athletic programs, and campus infrastructure.
This year’s weekly donations have been more labor intensive. The Hales quietly began making grants in January. Selecting the first 20 organizations was easy. Then it got harder. So they involved their three adult children.
Their middle son had played lacrosse and wanted to support Harlem Lacrosse, which empowers struggling students through the sport. Their eldest son wanted to support Cambiando Vidas, a US-based nonprofit that builds homes in the Dominican Republic; he’d spent several summers there helping out. Their daughter, who minored in women’s and gender studies, favored nonprofit domestic violence help center DOVE Inc. and animal shelters.
Friends also connected them with worthy causes. One who was particularly persuasive was legendary Fidelity money manager turned philanthropist Peter Lynch, who champions education. Lynch persuaded Karen Hale to visit Lawrence Catholic Academy, a pre-K to eighth-grade school serving about 450 students in one of the state’s poorest communities. “Peter drove me up to the school,” says Karen, who serves as executive director of the family’s foundation. “He knew that if he got me there I would be a believer.”
Just before Thanksgiving, she made the call to the Rev. Paul O’Brien, one of the academy’s trustees. The Hales have been running ahead of schedule on their giving, and this represented the last $1 million grant of the year. The money will go toward replacing three buildings on campus, each more than a century old.
“Kids in Andover, a mile and a half away, have all these wonderful resources, and I just believe that our kids deserve at least some fraction of that,” O’Brien says. “They certainly deserve a building without sewage overflowing from outside, and the fact that we’re going to be able to give them the kind of home they deserve is just God’s work.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.