The call came the day before Thanksgiving, as Donna Smith Sharff was in her sister’s kitchen making stuffing for the holiday meal. It was an unfamiliar number, so she almost ignored it, but then put aside the onions and celery she was chopping to answer her cellphone.
“The man on the other end said, ‘This is Robert Kraft from Foxborough,’ and I’m thinking, Robert Kraft? Robert Kraft? That name sounds very familiar,” Smith Sharff recalled.
“Then he said, ‘I would like to make a $100,000 gift to the Children’s Room,’ ” the Arlington nonprofit that Smith Sharff heads. The group, which helps young people grieving the death of a family member, has an annual budget of just $900,000.
“I’m not a sports person, so I’m not one of those people who would automatically understand who Robert Kraft is,” she said, “but then my brain started putting it together.”
The whole call lasted no more than 10 minutes, she added, “but time is hard to measure when you’re in shock.”
Once or twice a month, similar scenes are unfolding at Boston-area nonprofits, many of them small enough that a six-figure contribution is akin to hitting the lottery. The out-of-the-blue phone call or voicemail. The unlikely caller. The astonishment that leads some people to assume they’re victims of a prank.
And, finally, the dawning realization that the man on the line bearing gifts is, indeed, New England Patriots owner and billionaire businessman Robert Kraft.
Many people of great wealth give away money, of course, and some give away even more than Kraft. But his unusually personal philanthropy of recent months — he is also quietly visiting some of the nonprofits, and inviting them to meet with him in his private suite at Gillette Stadium — is part of his evolving effort to put his own imprint on a job he never thought would be his.
Kraft’s surprise grant-giving comes nearly four years after the death of his wife of many years, Myra, who made the sharing of her family’s riches her life’s work.
The death of a spouse often leaves the one left behind with new and unfamiliar tasks: the widow who has never had to balance a checkbook, the widower who has no idea how to turn on a washing machine. For Robert Kraft, 73, losing Myra to cancer in 2011 left him unexpectedly responsible for a philanthropic empire that he had assumed would keep his wife busy long after he died.
“That was his refrain for a long time: ‘I thought she would outlive me. I thought she’d be around forever. I thought Ma would be here to give away money when I was gone, but the script got flipped and here I am,’” said Josh Kraft, one of Robert and Myra’s four sons. “He’d always say, ‘I’ve got to figure out the philanthropy stuff and I don’t even know how to go about it.’ . . . He really had my mother lead the charge.”
It wasn’t that Myra Kraft’s death meant the family’s charitable giving came to a halt. Robert Kraft has continued to buy tables at charity galas and make large donations to organizations of many kinds, from his alma maters to Jewish causes to the arts. Last year, the family’s $70 million charitable foundation made $6 million in gifts.
But Myra Kraft had done more than just write checks. She sat on the boards of nonprofits, worked the phones to help charities raise money, and did strategic planning for organizations she supported. She was also a hands-on volunteer, occasionally serving meals at the Women’s Lunch Place on Newbury Street in Boston.
“Robert wasn’t just standing on the side, but Myra had a very special role,” said Barry Shrage, president of Boston-based Combined Jewish Philanthropies. “She had an eye for the underdog. She had her heart on her sleeve. When people were hurting, she was hurting along with them.”
Without Myra at the helm, the family’s giving became more traditional, less intimate. Although Robert continued making donations, it took him awhile and it took some help to make the work of philanthropy feel more his own. “We tried to figure out a way for him to do it that’s comfortable to him,” said Josh Kraft, who is CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston.
Robert Kraft declined multiple requests to speak with the Globe because, according to a consultant he hired to help design his new grant program, “he wants the focus to be on the nonprofits and not on him.”
The Globe agreed not to identify the consultant because the person makes the first calls to nonprofits on behalf of someone he calls “an anonymous donor.” Kraft wants to maintain the element of surprise.
The consultant, who was hired last spring, first spoke broadly with Kraft about his philanthropic interests, which included a desire to aim more of his giving at “nonprofits doing good work but that may not be getting the attention they deserve.” Kraft did not want to cut back on his more traditional philanthropy, the consultant said, but “wanted to do even more, and the question was: What was that more?”
Initially, the consultant suggested that Kraft get involved in “microfinancing for nonprofits with a business bent,” an idea Kraft didn’t warm to.
Eventually, Kraft agreed to the new program focused on relatively small nonprofits. As the Kraft family finds organizations that fit the definition, the consultant researches them. Those that make the cut typically receive a grant of $100,000.
That fits-and-starts process for a family after a death is familiar to Ellen Remmer, managing partner of the Philanthropic Initiative, a Boston nonprofit that provides advice.
“You want to honor that person’s legacy, and it can take several years of figuring out how to do that,” said Remmer, who does not know the Krafts personally.
Kraft has given away $1.3 million in surprise grants since last summer, and shock is a common reaction to his calls.
Spencer Kympton, president of The Mission Continues, which helps veterans adjust to life after military service, was sure the voice mail on his cellphone from someone named Robert Kraft was a hoax by a colleague.
“I’m like, OK, we have a lot of fun as a staff. Who’s doing this to me?” Kympton recalled.
When he received an identical message at his office, he Googled the callback number, which traced to an address in Foxborough listed as “Gillette Stadium/The Kraft Group.”
At that point, Kympton said, “I knew the number was legit.”
Making the Kraft grants potentially more valuable, they come with a challenge that encourages the nonprofits to raise an additional amount of money, using the Kraft name as leverage. If the nonprofits agree, Kraft holds back part of his gift until they’ve met their challenge.
“If you’re in my position, that always makes you nervous because you’re not sure you can raise the money, but I pretended to be confident with him on the phone,” said Andrew Schiff, CEO of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, which received $100,000 from Kraft for a program that teaches culinary skills to unemployed adults.
The food bank exceeded its fund-raising challenge by raising $105,000, and Schiff believes many donors contributed because the Kraft grant is tantamount to a philanthropic seal of approval. That combined $205,000 will cover a year’s cost of the culinary program.
“Game-changing” is how Deb Samuels, president of Crossroads for Kids, which runs summer camps and does youth development, describes her organization’s $100,000 gift.
“It’s the kind of grant that allows us to think beyond the day-to-day keeping the lights on, which is always the challenge for a small nonprofit,” she said.
At this point, Kraft’s surprise calls will continue indefinitely, and he has been making them even during busy times. It was late January when Claudia Green, executive director of English for New Bostonians, which helps adult immigrants learn English, was notified by Kraft that her organization would receive a grant.
The conversation was relatively short, but Kraft promised Green that someone else would follow up with her, she recalled, since “he said he had some other things going on that would be taking his attention.”
“In hindsight,” she said, “I guess he was talking about the Super Bowl.”