By Bennett Marcus
Photography By Michael Paniccia
Through her innate generosity and concern for humanity, Jean Shafiroff found her life’s calling: philanthropy. For years she has been a powerful leader, putting her boundless energy behind worthy charitable organizations both local and international, and today is at the pinnacle of New York’s philanthropic circles.
“I feel very lucky to be able to do the charity work that I do,” she says. “I think that it’s a great blessing to be in the position that I’m in. I’m very fortunate that I can help others.”
Jean sits on the boards of multiple foundations, chairs numerous events, and donates to many causes with which she is not directly involved. “When it comes to giving, Jean Shafiroff leads the pack,” says Elsie McCabe Thompson, the president of the New York City Mission Society, an organization with which Shafiroff has long been actively involved.
A humanitarian and author hailed as New York’s “First Lady of Philanthropy” by both Hello and Hola! magazines and several other publications, Jean is a fixture at charity galas in both Manhattan and the Hamptons, where she has homes. A fashion lover known for her iconic sense of style, she often appears on best-dressed lists. Last year Look Online named her to its international best-dressed list; others on that list included Anna Wintour and Meghan Markle. “I was in good company!” Jean says with a laugh.
Jean earned an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University, and worked in both public finance and private partnerships on Wall Street, and her business acumen is in high demand among charitable organizations. She also holds a BS in physical therapy from Columbia University.
This summer, she chaired galas for the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation and the Ellen Hermanson Foundation. In August, Jean and her husband, Martin, were the honorees at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s 61st annual Summer Party, which she has chaired three times in past years. Jean has been instrumental in raising large sums of money for the Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. “Healthcare is very important, and supporting the local hospital is probably the most important thing to do in the Hamptons. It would be difficult to live in a community without a good hospital,” she says.
Equally important for her is the fact that the hospital serves the entire community. “That fact is key. Just like any other community, we have people who are not wealthy. They need to have service, and I love that the hospital never turns anyone away. It’s a hospital for everyone.”
Jean recently joined the board of the Southampton Hospital Association, her eighth board appointment. She serves on a wide variety of charity boards, including the New York City Mission Society, the French Heritage Society, The Jewish Board, and the Couture Council of the Museum at F.I.T.
A prolific host, she entertains frequently in her homes. Recently she was listed by The Salonniere as one of 2019’s top 100 American party givers. Every weekend throughout the summer, her Southampton house is filled with guests. “A summer home is to be shared and enjoyed by loved ones and friends.” She also holds events at her homes for the causes she is passionate about, among them this year were soirées for Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, the New York City Mission Society, and Surgeons of Hope. “I like people. I’m a people person,” she says, and she is happy to have them if they’re making the effort to learn about a charity.
As the summer winds to a close, Jean hopes for a tiny bit of downtime in August, and is looking forward to spending a bit more time in Southampton. But there is little rest for this dynamo, and she’s gearing up for a busy fall, chairing or co-chairing galas for the New York Women’s Foundation, the French Heritage Society, and Surgeons of Hope. Others are in the works. “The philanthropy I do is definitely year-round.”
Surgeons of Hope will honor the actor Diego Luna at its fall gala, and the organization’s mission of providing free heart surgery to children in developing countries is especially intriguing to Jean. “They do wonderful work, and save so many lives,” she says, adding that she visited their facility in Nicaragua when she was in that country. “The children never would have received the surgery if these top heart surgeons hadn’t traveled to the country.”
Jean emphasized Surgeons of Hope in our discussion because she has become interested in global philanthropy. “I have traveled to many countries, including Cambodia, Nicaragua, Colombia, and China. In these and other countries I have seen enormous poverty and hardship. It is hard to view this and do nothing,” she explains.
She has long supported organizations that provide assistance worldwide, including the Cherie Blair Foundation, which creates economic opportunities for women. “The Cherie Blair Foundation helps women around the world to get jobs, in places like India and elsewhere, and it’s growing rapidly. I’m very impressed.”
Last December Jean traveled to London to support Walking with the Wounded, a charity that helps UK military veterans, and of which Prince Harry is a patron. “It was very exciting to meet Prince Harry. I think the royal family are great role models, and they do so much for people in the United Kingdom and internationally, and they really use that platform to do good.”
Jean’s two daughters have followed in their mom’s footsteps. Her youngest daughter, an animal rights advocate and philanthropist, formed the charity Global Strays, which helps animal rescue groups in developing nations. “It’s a wonderful charity that is absolutely making a difference,” says Jean, who is on the board.
In her book Successful Philanthropy: How to Make a Life by What You Give, Jean shares advice for anyone who wants to become involved in philanthropy regardless of financial status. “I believe we can all be philanthropists. Those who have very few financial resources can give time and knowledge.” Those who do have resources, Jean feels, have an obligation to help the underserved. “To do nothing is to waste a lifetime.”
Another book is in the works. “Writing a book requires a great deal of research, time to formulate ideas, and then time to write. It is not a simple process to write; however, I am glad that I wrote my first book.”
The press plays an important role in spreading news about philanthropy and the people involved in it, Jean believes. “I think it encourages other people,” she notes. She has gotten involved with certain causes by reading about them, including, years ago, about the Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
Now, she has embraced social media as a way to get her message out, particularly Instagram, where she has over 170,000 followers. “I think that it’s a wonderful platform to promote philanthropy and also to encourage people.” About a year ago, she got serious about it and hired a consultant to help her manage her online presence.
She also uses the platform to promote her interest in fashion, which helps to make her posts fun and eye-catching. “I am on the Couture Council board and try to help promote the work of our designers, particularly some younger, lesser-known designers. You will often see Jean wearing Oscar de la Renta, Zac Posen, Carolina Herrera, Victor dE Souza, Malan Breton, and B Michael, among others.
Jean collects high fashion ball gowns that she hopes to donate to a museum — someday, as she still very much enjoys the experience of wearing these creations. She is currently in the process of archiving her gown collection with a company called Clio Archivists, the brainchild of two fashion industry insiders, one from Vogue and one who teaches fashion history at F.I.T.
What drives her? “I live a good life and have been fortunate to have resources available to me. I believe we are not put on this earth to work with the intention of only giving to ourselves. When we share our resources, we come closer to understanding the meaning of life. With this in mind I remain committed and motivated to move forward with my work in philanthropy.”
Photography: Michael Paniccia
Hair: Henry de la Paz,
Creative Director for Warren Tricomi
Make-up: JP Ramirez
Cover Gown: Vicky Tiel
Earrings: Oscar de la Renta