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Buddy Fletcher's philanthropy

October 25, 2012: 8:11 AM ET

Beyond the headlines, he has a track record of charitable giving and promoting civil rights causes.

FORTUNE -- Before he was known in the tabloids and society circles as the guy suing the Dakota apartment building, before he was known in Silicon Valley and the tech community as the husband of Ellen Pao (the woman suing venture firm Kleiner Perkins for sexual discrimination), Alphonse "Buddy" Fletcher was perhaps best known -- in the academic and arts worlds, at least -- for his philanthropy.

Through his Fletcher Foundation, established in 1994 to promote race relations, Fletcher contributes to museums and performing arts groups. The foundation also endows university chairs at Harvard and Columbia.

But the crowning achievement of the foundation is the Fletcher Fellowship, a program that grants money to people whose work is deemed to be in the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Since 2004, the program has given $50,000 grants to 47 people.

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Fellows, who are chosen from a wide array of fields, include the lawyer Anita Hill, the poet Elizabeth Alexander, award-winning journalist Brent Staples, visual artist Glenn Ligon, and the pioneering civil rights activist Bob Moses. The selection committee includes luminaries like Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem.

Unsurprisingly, some of Fletcher's staunchest supporters are the beneficiaries of his charity, who say his donations have significantly enhanced the bodies of work in the field of social justice and related studies.

"I reached out to buddy after the New York Times ran a story on the Dakota lawsuit because I wanted to support him," says Miranda Massie, a civil rights attorney. "I felt the article uncritically cast aspersions on the Fletcher Fellowship."

Massie was among the second class of fellows, and she used her grant to litigate a desegregation case in a Los Angeles school district. The lawsuit would have been impossible without the grant, she says, because her clients had no financial resources.

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"Buddy is giving money in recognition of the fact that the American struggle for equality is broad," says Nina Jablonski, a noted anthropologist, TED speaker, and 2005 Fletcher Fellow who uses biological research to dispel myths about race. "He understands that the civil rights struggle continues to shape the country. His money is being used to improve American society."

But now that Fletcher is experiencing business challenges -- part of his firm has filed for voluntary bankruptcy -- some of his beneficiaries worry that the foundation will pare back its philanthropy. "The fellowship program has been a real boost for work that looks at American inequality," says Massie. "If the fellowship program ends, it would absolutely leave a big hole."

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Katie Benner
Katie Benner
Writer, Fortune

Katie Benner joined Fortune in October 2006. As a writer for the magazine and the website, she focuses on Wall Street and the economy. Prior to joining Fortune, Benner worked at TheStreet.com, CNNMoney, and as a freelancer in Beijing for China International Business, the South China Morning Post, and as a columnist for Beijing Review. She has a B.A. in English from Bowdoin College.

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