The name plate on Harvey Najim’s executive desk reads, “Hero for Children,” and thank-you mementos and plaques cover every inch of the corner office walls, so many they spill out into the corridors.

On a recent afternoon, Najim went line-by-line through a foundation report tracking every dollar and percentage in his giving history. It’s an extensive one, and he estimates that he and the foundation are on track to award a lifetime total of $175 million by the end of the year to the causes Najim cares about, namely education and charities supporting children. 

The prominent philanthropist announced recently he is taking a step back from running his charitable foundation that in 15 years has awarded millions of dollars in grants. Melissa Bauman, executive director and chief operating officer of the Harvey E. Najim Charitable Foundation for most of that time, will succeed him as president starting Jan. 1. 

Najim, 82, will serve as chairman of the board and plans to trim his current schedule of four days a week in the office to one.

“I’m not retiring, I’m transitioning,” he insisted, adding he’s healthy and will remain involved in the work of the foundation. “My mind is still good.”

Satisfied he’s set the foundation on a strong path and installed a capable leader in Bauman, Najim is pursuing new goals. 

He plans to increase the time he spends mentoring students in the Najim Center for Business Innovation and Career Advancement at the University of Texas at San Antonio, sharing the insights gained from having built a successful technology company. 

With an unlit cigar held between his lips, Harvey Najim makes a call from his office. The philanthropist said he plans to cut down his time spent in the office, but he has no intentions of stepping away from his foundation.
Harvey Najim says he plans to reduce the time he spends in the office, but he has no intentions of stepping away from his philanthropy. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

And he wants to write his story — a book about growing up in middle-class America, building a business from scratch and what inspired him to a life of giving that turned a name barely known outside of tech circles into one synonymous with philanthropy. 

But the goals and strategy of the foundation won’t change with the change in leadership, Najim said — and he’s put plans in place to ensure the giving will continue long after he’s buried.

‘All one bucket’

More than half of Najim’s giving is funneled through the foundation he established in 2006. It was started with a commitment of $75 million — from a private equity transaction in which he sold majority ownership in the business computer and software systems company he founded in 1980, Sirius Computer Solutions.

Of the total $175 million he and the foundation have given to charity since 2007, nearly $88 million will have been awarded through the foundation. Najim also contributed more funds to the foundation in 2015 when he retired from Sirius, he said. 

In 2015, Najim established a donor-advised fund managed by the San Antonio Area Foundation, a funding mechanism that provides certain tax advantages to the funder. Since then, the fund has awarded 220 grants worth $60 million. 

A major recipient of those funds was ChildSafe, a care center for child victims of abuse and neglect, and received a $5 million gift for a new facility. The fund also supports individual university scholarships.

Prior to setting up the Area Foundation fund, Najim contributed $25 million to projects like a children’s center at Haven For Hope, the playground at Morgan’s Wonderland, and a children’s area at the Alamo Area Rape Crisis Center. 

Wearing a superhero cape, Harvey Najim takes a ride down a slide at the Mays Boys & Girls Club after a press conference in 2018.
Wearing a superhero cape, Harvey Najim takes a ride down a slide at the Mays Boys & Girls Club after a press conference in 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In addition, a smaller portion of Najim’s total giving is through personal checks to causes he cares about, he said. “But it’s all one bucket to me.”

Education as a first step

Najim’s foundation is focused on serving children through nonprofit organizations that do work to provide basic needs, health care and education and prevent and combat homelessness and child abuse. 

More than 20% of Najim’s overall philanthropy is tied to his passion: K-12 education.

The foundation’s approach to giving won’t change when Najim transitions to his new role, said Bauman. “We’re going to run it just like if he was here sitting in that chair.”

Najim sees education as the key to reducing poverty and food insecurity in San Antonio, and those are the areas in which he most wants to make a difference.

“If you have an education, you can get a job,” Najim said, a viewpoint he adopted after conversations with Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. “If you have education and a job, you have housing. If you have education, a job and housing, you’re food-secure.”

The foundation has three grant cycles a year, inviting applications for grants to support projects and programming. Najim and the board together choose grant recipients after applications are reviewed by staff. 

From success to significance

A first-generation college graduate, Najim is quick to point out that he started from nothing — “I didn’t get one dollar from my parents” — and his wealth came not from single-handedly building a business.

“I was one of 1,700 [employees] and it was a team effort,” he said.

He was moved to begin giving his money away while at a car wash in 2004. “I went through a tough time in my life,” he said. “I went and got my car washed and waxed and I’m sitting there almost with tears in my eyes thinking about what had happened.”

Spotting his anguish, a worker handed him the book, Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance, by Bob Buford. Najim read it in one night.

“I … realized that I had had this success in the business world, but there was the second half of my life that could be dedicated to significance, which means making a difference in the lives of others who are less fortunate,” he said.

Two years later, the chief financial officer at his company recommended that Najim consider the private equity transaction that ultimately made him a millionaire. 

The former tech entrepreneur admits he didn’t fully understand the need in San Antonio until he started the foundation with the help of an attorney and advisors at Broadway Bank. He decided to start with what he was most passionate about: children’s causes. 

Awards and thank you letters are displayed around the Harvey E. Najim Charitable Foundation office.
Awards and thank you letters are displayed around the Harvey E. Najim Charitable Foundation office. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

That first year, a letter went out to 20 area nonprofits announcing his intention to make donations; Najim got 20 requests in response. Then another 162 unsolicited requests also landed in his mailbox. 

Today, he’s donated to 265 organizations and is proud that he has personally visited at least 200 of them. His name is emblazoned on more than 60 buildings, the result of sizable gifts to charitable organizations, including the YMCA of Greater San Antonio, Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas and SAMMinistries

Next generation

Najim credits two local self-made millionaires-turned-philanthropists, Haven For Hope founder Bill Greehey and Morgan’s Wonderland founder Gordon Hartman, for opening his eyes to two categories of needs he never expected to support: homelessness and people with disabilities.

Well-regarded in San Antonio for their charity, Greehey is 86 years old and Hartman is 60. As to who will make up the next generation of philanthropists, Najim can think of few people besides downtown developer Graham Weston, who launched his 80/20 Foundation in 2004 and was one of four founders of the nonprofit Community Labs to facilitate COVID-19 testing.

As he eases back from the day-to-day work of philanthropy, Najim has ensured that his support of nonprofits and causes does not end when he dies. 

While there won’t be any personal checks written after his death and the fund managed by the Area Foundation will be paid out until the balance is zero, 95% of Najim’s estate — an amount he estimates at $250 million — will go to the foundation. He has established trusts for his two adult children.

Najim said he is not sure what his legacy will be. But he doesn’t think it will be his business career. “I have a feeling … it will be service,” he said.

This article has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to money granted by the Najim Charitable Foundation.

Harvey Najim is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of individual members, click here.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...