AOL Veteran Uses Power of Access
By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2004; Page E01
America Online Inc. co-founder James V. Kimsey didn't just say yes when L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, asked him to send experts from a nonprofit organization he runs to help identify human remains.
"I'll do better than that," Kimsey replied. "I'll take them over myself."
He spent four days in a war zone on a gruesome mission, spending more than $150,000 of his own money to fly in DNA experts from the International Commission on Missing Persons to begin identifying Iraqis who were buried in mass graves during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
After meeting with a United Nations envoy, Kimsey visited a mass grave at Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, where exhumations had begun. He directed his staff to remain to set up a model program for DNA analysis.
The Washington area has many philanthropists, but Kimsey brings a distinctive style to his causes. He has the self-confidence of an Internet pioneer and the name-dropping habits of a Washington insider. He likes efforts on a grand scale. (He gave the Kennedy Center $10 million over five years.) Until recent years, he had trouble saying no to a cause. (At one point he served on 54 nonprofit boards.) And the former Army ranger prefers a dash of Rambo with his philanthropy, whether he is roaming the hallways of District schools or negotiating with guerrillas in Colombia.
"I've always been drawn to things people say can't be done," Kimsey said. "That's why there's an AOL."
It's a style that wins praise from those who work with him, although critics sometimes question the effectiveness of Kimsey's unorthodox approach to philanthropy.
Kimsey, 64, has donated about $35 million, mostly to international institutions, the arts and education groups, according to his staff.
"He was a risk-taker in real life, and he's doing that in philanthropy," said Terrence Scanlon, president of the Capital Research Center, a nonprofit think tank that studies philanthropy.
Kimsey, the oldest of three children, grew up in Arlington. His father was a government worker. He went to Gonzaga High School in the District, then transferred to St. John's College High School. He attended Georgetown University for a year before transferring to West Point.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
James V. Kimsey, who was chairman of America Online in its early days, devotes his days to philanthropy -- his way. He is known for taking control of charitable enterprises.
(Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
About the Series
Students Find Developer Gruff, Generous (The Washington Post, Aug 2, 2004)
Ideas, Money Aren't Enough (The Washington Post, Aug 2, 2004)
Chef Helps Disadvantaged People Taste Pride, Success (The Washington Post, Aug 2, 2004)
TV Executive Boosts Learning In 10 Nations With Foundation (The Washington Post, Aug 2, 2004)
Trying to Open Doors To Math and Science (The Washington Post, Aug 2, 2004)
Metro Business: Coverage of Washington area businesses and the local economy.