H. Peter Karoff

Date of Birth

May 16, 1937

H. Peter Karoff, a renowned contributor to the world of philanthropy and a business leader in Boston, died at his home in Santa Barbara on March 9. He was 79. The cause of death was complications from pancreatic cancer.

Beginning with his early work as a founding member of the Foundation for Urban Negro Development in Boston, Peter was a champion of civil rights and social justice. He discovered his true calling in strategic philanthropy when in 1988 he introduced a friend, who happened to be the CEO of a major corporation looking to initiate a corporate giving program, to another friend, the film-maker Henry Hampton, who was struggling to find funding for the second installment of his civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize II. Inspired by the idea of matching wealth to need, in 1989 Peter founded The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), a pioneering non-profit consulting firm dedicated to increasing the impact of philanthropy in society. Over the next 25 years under Peter’s guidance and direction, TPI became a leading influence in the world of philanthropy. Whether working with individual donors and families or large foundations and corporations, Peter employed empathy and wisdom to align donor goals and values with historically underserved communities and populations, and with projects that sought to advance the human condition through art and culture. The richness and depth of his commitment to progressive causes reflected his core belief in the ethical and moral purpose of philanthropy, which he realized throughout both his personal and professional life. The impact of Peter’s humanism, generosity, compassion, lyricism and mentoring were deeply felt by people from all walks of life, and will be missed by all who knew him.

Peter frequently spoke and wrote on philanthropic and social issues. His book on philanthropy, The World We Want, was published in 2007, and he was the editor of the 2004 collection Just Money–A Critique of Contemporary American Philanthropy. For 25 years prior to founding TPI, Peter was prominent in the real estate and insurance industries in Boston.

Peter’s love of poetry was legendary, and his need to poeticize was constant and inveterate. He practiced the art over many years, on his family (epically), friends and colleagues, in speeches around the country and abroad, in classrooms at Columbia where he earned an MFA in poetry at the age of 51, and at Tufts University, Boston University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he taught both philanthropy and poetry. His last class was a poetry seminar he taught in fall 2016 through the Vista Program in Santa Barbara entitled “Poetry and Metaphor—Living a Life of . . .” Peter’s poetry has been published and anthologized, and his first book of poems, Parable, will appear this spring.

Over the years, Peter was on the board of more than 30 nonprofit organizations, including Roxbury Development Corporation, Business Executives for National Security, WGBH Educational Foundation, Boston University’s Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership, the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, and Blackside Productions. He was a Fellow of the MacDowell Colony and a 2006 Purpose Prize Fellow. Most recently, he was active in the GHR Foundation, Robina Foundation, and the Santa Barbara Foundation. Upon his move with his wife Martha to Santa Barbara in 2008, he embraced a West Coast philanthropic community and new cohorts of leaders to mentor, as he had done for decades on the East Coast.

Hillel Peter Karoff was born in Brockton, MA, on May 16, 1937, to George and Sadie Karoff. He graduated from Brandeis University in 1959, earned an MFA from Columbia University in 1988, and received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Lesley University in 2002. It was at Brandeis that he met his wife and the love of his life, Martha Conant, who predeceased him in 2015. They married young in 1956 and had four children by the time he was 25. For Peter, family was everything, and gatherings over Christmas and Thanksgiving—often with 30 or more at the table—made for great joy and enduring memories. Peter was an avid sailor, whose passion for the water occasionally met with mishap, and he was affectionately referred to as Crash Karoff at the local boatyard. But his children never wavered in their confidence and they fearlessly sailed with him in the waters of Buzzard’s Bay and Martha’s Vineyard, where the family spent many happy summers. His love of place—West Newton and Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, and Santa Barbara—leaves his family with many memories, and many poems.

Peter will be deeply missed by his daughters Deborah Karoff of Santa Barbara, CA, Lorinda Karoff of Brooklyn, NY, Rebecca Karoff of Austin, TX, and son Thomas Karoff of Armonk, NY, and their devoted spouses, Anna DiStefano, Jeffrey Younger, Brad Wolbert, and Pamela Furtsch. He leaves behind seven beloved grandchildren ranging in age from 25 to 8: Jacob and Sophie Wolbert, Kaeli and Emma DiStefano-Karoff, and Devon, Sarah and Lauren Karoff. Peter also leaves behind his brother- and sister-in-law, Richard M. Karoff and Sandra Manzella, along with three nephews, David Karoff, Paul Karoff and John Karoff, and their wives and children, with whom he enjoyed wonderfully close relationships.

Peter dearly loved his family, his home, his community, art, music, and sailing. Most of all, he loved his life with his soul mate of 59 years, Martha.

What I do what we all do is write the poem of life
You see it isn’t a matter of time but compassion
Call it community or hope or faith or call it love.
That is the flow that is the poem.

“If I Had More Time,” from Parable

Services are planned in Santa Barbara on May 12 at 2:00 p.m. at the University Club, and in Boston on June 11 at a location and time to be determined. Additional information may be found at http://www.wrhsb.com/obituaries/.

Donations in memory of Peter may be made to the Karoff Fund for Leadership in Philanthropy, c/o The Boston Foundation. Contributions will be used to fund and disseminate research, writing, and other projects that inform, inspire, and support the next generation of philanthropic leaders.


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