Peter Karoff, 79, taught poetry, changed philanthropies

08karoff - Peter Karoff (handout)
Peter Karoff wrote in 2012: “The problem is that the art of philanthropy has no agreed-upon definition — it is seldom named or acknowledged as art, even though we know it when we see it.”

In midlife, Peter Karoff took a sabbatical from working at a real estate and investment firm to pursue a master’s degree in writing poetry, a field far removed from a life in finance.

Around the same time, he became a philanthropic matchmaker when he brought together two friends — one a CEO who wanted to launch a corporate giving program, the other “Eyes on the Prize” documentary filmmaker Henry Hampton, who was seeking additional funding for his project.

That experience inspired Mr. Karoff to found The Philanthropic Initiative in Boston. Since it began in 1989, the nonprofit consulting firm has sought to increase philanthropy’s impact by working with companies and families to make their donations more effective. Thoughtful and literary, Mr. Karoff continued to write, often filtering his observations about charitable giving through his poet’s sensibility.


“The problem is that the art of philanthropy has no agreed-upon definition — it is seldom named or acknowledged as art, even though we know it when we see it,” he wrote in a 2012 essay for the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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After moving in 2008 from his longtime home in West Newton to Santa Barbara, Calif., he taught poetry classes, even after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He expected perhaps 20 to sign up for his final outing, only to find that 70 wanted to be among his students. Mr. Karoff was 79 when he died March 9 in his Santa Barbara home.

People yearn for a larger purpose, but often can’t bridge the gap between day-to-day responsibilities and the greater public good, he noted in “The World We Want: New Dimensions in Philanthropy and Social Change,” a book he wrote with Jane Maddox.

“What I am especially interested in are the unlikely connections, when social responsibility intersects with business and community, and in how we go about our individual, family, and professional lives,” Mr. Karoff wrote. “It feels paradoxical to me that, on the one hand, we so cherish our private lives and, on the other, are drawn to public ones. The same thing that motivates us, that propels us down the path to community, is also what holds us back, what cautions us to not proceed at all. Yet the pull is great.”

Mr. Karoff had previously edited a 2004 essay collection “Just Money: A Critique of Contemporary American Philanthropy.”


“Peter was such an unusual combination of qualities. He was a poet and he loved to write, and he loved to philosophize and think about what the world really could look like,” said Leslie Pine, managing partner of The Philanthropic Initiative, which Mr. Karoff led for a quarter century. “Those big ideas and creative ideas are part of what drove him.”

In a eulogy for a May memorial service in Santa Barbara, Mr. Karoff’s daughter Deborah said her father “had a broad reach in many places and a deep impact on many people,” but added that he was at heart “a family man. He was devoted to his wife, Martha, and to each of his four children. He and my mother created a relationship and a family life which was solid, loving, supportive, and fun.”

Along with the poetry workshops he offered late in life, Mr. Karoff had taught classes in philanthropy at various colleges. At home with his children, he shared lessons that guided him, particularly when he was establishing The Philanthropic Initiative.

“He taught me to ask questions of people to get them talking, to listen carefully, and to honor individual secrets and confidences,” said Deborah, who lives in Santa Barbara. “He taught me to do good in the world, whatever I choose to do.”

H. Peter Karoff — he never used or went by his first name — was born and grew up in Brockton, a son of George Karoff, who ran a hardware store, and the former Sadie Berger.


“When he was a kid, he named his dog Cookie Candy Karoff,” his daughter Lorinda of Brooklyn, N.Y., said at the May service. “Even at a young age, he grasped the power of alliteration.”

Mr. Karoff majored in English at Brandeis University, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1959. While there, he met Martha Conant, and persisted after she turned him down when he first asked for a date. They married in 1956.

Though Martha Karoff was called a homemaker by the convention of the era, Deborah said in a eulogy when Mrs. Karoff died in 2015 that “it might be better to reverse the word and describe my mother as a maker of home” — someone who “decorated her homes in beautiful and sophisticated ways,” and who also served as the founding board chair of the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown.

At the beginning, however, the Karoffs lived in a garage that had been converted into an apartment, and Mr. Karoff sold Seal-O-Matic cookware door-to-door to support his wife and the first of their children while finishing his undergraduate studies.

He would go on to sell insurance for John Hancock and later become an executive with The March Company, working in real estate and investment. With his family he settled in West Newton, from which he commuted while studying for his master’s in fine arts from Columbia University in New York, which he received in 1988.

“We grew up in an idyllic part of the world which he and my mother created for us, one that resembled their humble upbringings not one bit,” their son, Thomas of Armonk, N.Y., said at the May service. “He often told me these last few years how much he loved being a father.”

Mr. Karoff encouraged everyone he met “to engage, live and love deeply, to act intentionally,” his daughter Rebecca of Austin, Texas, said at the May service. He insisted that no one should ever be bored, she recalled, “but he also gave to us the understanding that meaningful activity could take place in silence and solitude, with a book, at the computer writing, sitting quietly outside, listening to music, to birds.”

In addition to his four children, Mr. Karoff leaves a brother, Richard of Boston, and seven grandchildren. A memorial gathering will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at First Unitarian Society in Newton.

“Until the very end of his life, reading was a way of being, and so was writing,” Rebecca said in May, adding that “each of my father’s poems was an autobiography, a gemstone of economy, pith, emotion.”

He had nearly finished a memoir when he died, and his first collection of poetry, “Parable,” was published in May. In “Larger Than Life,” written as a tribute to a philanthropist friend, Mr. Karoff closed with two stanzas that, after he died, could be read as a reflection on his own work in the parallel pursuits of poetry and philanthropy.

When a good man dies

The earth nods, heaves a sigh

And just goes back to its work.

You can’t trick fate

But you can mold it with passion,

Bend it by ambition

And turn it toward a better world.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at