Ken Behring is a man on the move. Impatient for a delivery room, he burst into the world in a hospital elevator. Since then, it’s been nothing but forward momentum.
Early on, Mr. Behring knew he wanted to distance himself from his working-poor upbringing in Depression-era Wisconsin. He knew he wanted to get away from a house without central heat or hot water, to get away from eating the same dinner—fried potatoes and cucumbers, grown in the backyard—night after night. So young Ken started mowing lawns, caddying golf courses, and delivering newspapers. At 14, he took a summer job moving 50-pound sacks of concrete mix off boxcars and onto trucks.
The job toughened him up for the football field. He loved the game, not least, as he later put it, because “football provided me with, for the first time in my life, a hot shower.” After winning a football scholarship to the University of Wisconsin—and then losing it to a preseason knee injury—Mr. Behring moved home and started selling Hudsons and Chevrolets. By age 21, he had scratched together enough money to buy a patch of land and an inventory of 27 used cars. Within six years, with hard work and determination, Mr. Behring was making $50,000 per year and had $1 million in assets (over $400,000 and $8.1 million, respectively, in 2010 dollars). He sold the business in 1956. He could have retired at 27.
Instead, he moved his family to Florida, where he jumped into the homebuilding industry. He was soon pioneering the creation of planned-development communities for retirees, with a fee-based association providing repair and maintenance for single-family homes. He developed 10,000 uncultivated acres northwest of Fort Lauderdale into the town of Tamarac, home today to nearly 60,000 residents. In 1972, Mr. Behring did it all over again. He moved to northern California, where, after a decade of intense wrangling with environmental activists, he built Blackhawk, a development with 2,500 high-end homes. In the process, he donated 2,800 acres to the Mount Diablo State Park and planted over 400,000 new trees.
Mr. Behring crashed back to the gridiron in 1988, when he bought the Seattle Seahawks for $79 million. Nine years later, he sold the franchise to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen for $200 million. After the sale, he began to devote more and more of his time and resources to philanthropy.
As in his business career, Mr. Behring’s charitable efforts have raced from one project to another, a result of his instinctive ability to recognize and seize promising opportunities. Many of his signature achievements focus on global health. He is the founder of the Wheelchair Foundation, which in its 10 years has distributed more than 800,000 wheelchairs, free of charge, to people worldwide who could not otherwise afford them. In 2005, he launched the WaterLeaders Foundation, which evaluates the water needs of communities around the globe, and equips, trains, and enables those communities to provide themselves with safe drinking water. Most recently, he has kicked off Operation Global Vision, with a three-year goal of providing surgery, free of charge, for 275,000 victims of cataract blindness.
Mr. Behring is also a mover and shaker in the field of education. Some of his efforts, like the principal training program he funded at the University of California, Berkeley, are fairly straightforward. Others are perhaps more unconventional. For instance, he sponsors the National History Day Contest, a nationwide academic competition for middle and high school students with a focus on American history. Every year, more than 500,000 students across the country explore major themes in American history, and the 2,400 top finishers proceed to the final round of the contest in a weeklong competition at the University of Maryland.
That interest in American history led Mr. Behring to renovate and re-design the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Through the careful deployment of $80 million, Mr. Behring played an instrumental role in creating permanent exhibits on the American presidency (“A Glorious Burden”) and on the nation at war (“The Price of Freedom”). A lifelong outdoorsman and hunter, he also provided $20 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in support of the Hall of Mammals. He has also funded the creation of six museums of natural history in China.
Philanthropy caught up with Mr. Behring and discussed his efforts in global health, his work in education, and his support for the study and celebration of American history.
PHILANTHROPY: Your biography reads like a Horatio Alger story. Early in life, a hardworking kid from Depression-era Wisconsin learns the value of entrepreneurship. After high school, he starts selling cars, becomes a real estate developer, and devotes his life to helping other people. How do your decades of experience as an entrepreneur inform your charitable giving?
MR. BEHRING: Well, all through life, I never really had anybody to support me. I never had a pool of money to fall back on, so I was always ready to finish up whatever I was doing and move into the next thing. It made me the type of person who never looks straight ahead. I’m always looking for something better than what I’m doing. I seemed to have changed my life about every 10 years—I mean, I owned a group of banks once, and an NFL team—and, sure, not everything is successful, but you learn as you go. Now I carry the same basic ideas into philanthropy. I want to know where every dollar is going. I want to know if it’s really helping people. And I always keep looking out for new and better opportunities.
PHILANTHROPY: You work with a wide range of charities, spanning everything from health care to museums and clean water to education. Do you see a common denominator in this highly diversified philanthropic portfolio?
MR. BEHRING: I guess I got into things as they came up. I didn’t have any kind of master plan, but took things on whenever I could. I never wanted to give so much in one area that I didn’t look around and see what else was needed. But now I’m at a point where the connections are becoming clearer. I’m bringing everything together in a new entity, the Global Health and Education Foundation. It will focus on a number of things, but everything will circle back to health and education. So, for example, our work with wheelchairs and clean water are subsidiaries, under global health. The museums have been a subsidiary, under education.
In all of this, I’m not much of a person for giving money to a big outfit like the Red Cross. I’d rather have more control over the project. Not that I necessarily want to do it myself, you know, but I want to know how the money is being used. I want to know who’s using it and how much of it is actually being used to achieve our goals.
PHILANTHROPY: If you don’t mind my asking, I would be curious to know how much you have given to charitable causes in your life.
MR. BEHRING: Yes, well, you know, I haven’t tallied it up, but it’s probably between $200 million and $300 million. Part of it, thank goodness, is that our tax code permits us to use some taxable money for charitable giving. Whether we like to say so or not, it makes it easier to give. That’s fine with me. I feel I can do a better job giving it away than the government can.
PHILANTHROPY: May I ask what led you to wheelchair distribution? How did you discover this seemingly obvious but surprisingly under-served market?
MR. BEHRING: After I sold the football team, I was traveling fairly often to Africa to go hunting. Whenever I would go, I would hire local guides. Well, they were locals, and they knew where the real needs were. So I started taking a bunch of supplies with me—medicines, old children’s books, that kind of thing. One time, my friends in the Bich family gave us 100,000 Bic pens to take along. Anyway, LDS Philanthropies [the charitable wing of the Church of Latter-day Saints] knew about my trips, and before one of my flights, they asked me if I could make a detour and take some canned meat to a group of refugees from the Kosovo War. When we loaded up the 15 tons of canned meat, we had some extra room. So they asked if I would take six wheelchairs and drop them off in Romania. And that’s what we did.
When we got to Romania, I helped hand out the wheelchairs. It changed my life. It was the first time that I saw how terrible life can be if you can’t move. There was one elderly man. I picked him up and put him in his new chair. He grabbed on to me and the tears ran down his face. He said, “Now I can go outside in my yard and smoke with my neighbors.” Imagine what it must have been like for him, unable to do basic things like go outside and sit in the sun. In a matter of minutes, we had changed his life.
Not long afterward, I went to Vietnam with a set of wheelchairs from Hope Haven Ministries in Iowa. That was another eye opener. I gave a wheelchair to Bui Thi Huyen, a six-year-old girl who had never been able to move herself. When I first saw her, she was sitting on a pile of rags, crying and crying. I tried to cheer her up—I gave her some lollipops—but nothing seemed to work. But then I picked her up and put her in the chair. And then, after a few minutes, she moved it, all by herself. She smiled the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. Another woman I met told me she was 78 years old. She was missing a lot of teeth, and the ones she still had were all black. She told me that before she got her chair, she had wanted to die. After I put her in, she took my hand, put her face close to mine, and said, “Now I don’t want to die.”
Mobility seems like such a simple thing, but it makes a big difference in your quality of life. I had a stroke last year, and for the first time in my life, I was in a wheelchair. It was only for a little while, but it sure drove home the point, that if you don’t have mobility, your life is a lot tougher.
PHILANTHROPY: Can I ask a few nuts-and-bolts questions about the wheelchairs? How many have you distributed worldwide? How much do they cost? How do you transport them?
MR. BEHRING: Sure. We’ve given out more than 800,000 wheelchairs worldwide. We ship 280 wheelchairs per container, anywhere around the world, with one exception: China. We don’t ship by container to China because we work directly with the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF). I’m one of the 20 people on the board, serving 83 million disabled persons throughout China. Anyway, the CDPF tells me who needs a chair, what area of China they’re in, and they pick the chairs up at the factory and deliver them directly.
PHILANTHROPY: Have you explored any ways to turn the Wheelchair Foundation into a partially self-sustaining enterprise? That is to say, is there a role for a profit mechanism, so that you don’t have to underwrite its ongoing operating expenses?
MR. BEHRING: Let me tell you a little story from a few years ago. I was at a luncheon in South Africa with Nelson Mandela. A week later, I was in China, having lunch with the Mayor of Shanghai. Both of them told me the exact same thing. They said, “We did not ask you to come here. You came here because you wanted to. And when you came here, you gave away these wheelchairs with no strings attached. That is friendship.” From that, I take it that when you truly give for the act of giving—not looking for something in return—it’s received so much differently.
So no, I would not want to start charging even a nomi-nal fee. First of all, the people that we give chairs to, they have nothing. They’re the poorest of the poor. Second, I enjoy giving them away. If I give 500 wheelchairs, I go and shake hands with every person that gets one. And I tell each and every person that the only thing we want in return is a smile. When I shake their hands, they give me a big smile—but there are tears running down their faces. So you get the feeling of what difference it makes to them. I mean, it changes their life. It changed my life.
PHILANTHROPY: Let me come at the same question, but from a different angle. There has been a trend in recent years to require some minimal buy-in from the beneficiaries of charity. The idea is that people have a natural tendency to take better care of things they have bought than things they have received. Did you ever consider requiring recipients to pay some nominal fee for their wheelchairs?
MR. BEHRING: Oh, no, not really. I don’t think it would work for us, because we give the chairs to the poorest of the poor. Besides, you can’t exactly eat a wheelchair, you can’t burn it, and if you want to get rid of it, its only use would be for another disabled person. We’ve found that we just don’t have a problem with people re-selling their chairs.
The need is just tremendous. It’s amazing—there are always people waiting for chairs. Almost every month, more people need chairs than did the month before, so it’s hard to imagine getting to the point where we’re giving away more chairs than are needed. People come back after four, five years, even six years, and they bring out their chairs just to show us what great shape they’ve kept them in. More often than not, the red paint still looks bright and new.
PHILANTHROPY: That’s right. You paint all the wheelchairs bright red. Is there a particular reason?
MR. BEHRING: Not really. Red has always been one of my favorite colors. I’ve been into classic cars for a long time. I always liked them in red, so it carried over to the wheelchairs, I suppose. Now, if we go somewhere and see a red chair, we pretty much know it’s one of ours.
PHILANTHROPY: Has giving away wheelchairs changed your other philanthropic giving? And if so, how?
MR. BEHRING: Yes, it has. For one thing, it led me into the area of global health. I learned how simple little things can make an enormous difference in people’s lives. It got me thinking about clean water, and so I started an effort to develop state-of-the-art water purification systems. It got me thinking about blindness. We recently launched a new program, Operation Global Vision, which provides free cataract blindness surgery in Central America, Africa, and Asia. We ask individuals to donate $40, which we match with another $40. That $80 is used to pay for one cataract blindness reversal surgery. So far, we have conducted about 16,000 operations around the world. Our goal is to reach 275,000 in the next three years. Like with wheelchairs, we only serve the poorest of the poor. It’s amazing what a difference you make in a person’s life for a relatively small sum of money.
PHILANTHROPY: Can I ask one last question about the Wheelchair Foundation? You worked both in the United States and, as you’ve indicated, pretty extensively overseas. What have you seen as the biggest difference?
MR. BEHRING: Here in the United States, thank goodness, just about anybody can get a wheelchair. The government is very good about it, and there are plenty of nonprofit organizations that will get you a wheelchair. When we’ve given away chairs, we usually give to veterans groups and hospitals—it’s surprising how many hospitals don’t budget enough money to have a few extra wheelchairs on hand. But when it comes to giving chairs to individuals, we often find a little less gratitude here in the States. One time, we were handing out wheelchairs, and the people looked at us and asked, “Why didn’t you get us the motorized wheelchairs?”
PHILANTHROPY: Another component of your work on global health involves clean water. You launched the WaterLeaders Foundation in 2005. Can you say a few words about it?
MR. BEHRING: Well, the original idea was to build water systems that could be used anywhere. We wanted to find new technologies that make good, clean drinking water available all over the world. So I went to the National Academy of Sciences here in the U.S., and then to the International Academy, and then to the Chinese Academy of Science. We worked with a bunch of scientists, and they came up with a water system that uses very little electricity. We’ve been putting those systems up, and now we’ve got two pilot programs up and running, one in Mexico and one in Inner Mongolia.
What we’ve found is that our system is as good—maybe better than—anything else out there, but it takes a lot of labor to install it. Unless you’re hooked up with an organization that can furnish labor, you’re going to have to hire and employ a lot of people. Well, we didn’t want all the extra overhead, so it’s really slowed us down.
Apart from other people to do the labor, we need education. We were delivering sterilized bottles of water and the people would take it, put it in their old pans, and boil it. It completely undid all the good we had done. They said, “Well, our grandparents boiled water, we’re going to boil water. We don’t trust it from a bottle.” So, on education, I worked with the National Academy of Sciences to put out a website called drinking-water.org. It gives information on clean water in five languages—English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. It’s a good start, but a lot more is needed.
PHILANTHROPY: Speaking of which, let’s turn to the topic of education for a moment. Some of your first big charitable contributions were in the field of education. One early effort involved funding teacher recognition awards at your sons’ high school. Another, in 2000, was the creation of the Principal Leadership Institute at the University of California. Can you say a few words about it?
MR. BEHRING: Right. The institute is having its 10th anniversary this year—and it has trained more than 500 principals in its first 10 years. Now, every student in the program is a Behring Scholar. I underwrite part of their tuition, and they commit to teaching poor kids in California for four years. It’s a 14-month program, with night, weekend, and summer school courses. They have done a tremendous job. One thing I’ve learned is that principals make a pretty good investment. You get good principals, and they can go a long way toward turning around a bad school. It’s a pretty good way to get education reforms moving.
PHILANTHROPY: A rather different educational initiative you support is the National History Day Competition. Instead of training new school leaders, you’re going straight to the students. Could you say a few words about it?
MR. BEHRING: Yes. I’m funding some of the History Day competition. We’re getting more than 500,000 students and teachers involved in it annually. Every year, the contest has a theme, and the kids—from all over the country—do a project on the theme. There are five ways to do the project: term paper, documentary film, freestanding exhibit, performance production, or online website. Then, the top 2,500 or so entries compete for a full week at the University of Maryland, and a panel of judges picks winners in each of the categories. It’s been pretty successful. And it’s common sense that once kids are really into their projects, they’ll soon be more interested in history, and that may help get them interested in the rest of their schoolwork.
PHILANTHROPY: Why do you think it’s important for private philanthropy to support the study and celebration of American history?
MR. BEHRING: Well, you don’t want to live in the past. But you can learn a lot by looking back at where you came from, and trying to determine where you are heading today. How do you copy the best ideas and principles from the past, while still giving people the opportunity to do new things?
For instance, I want young people to think more seriously about freedom, about what it means to be free, not just in a political sense, but in an economic sense, too. Take government regulations. It’s not something that kids naturally think about. But the more regulations there are, the less anybody wants to do. I mean, no matter what you get into these days, you’re probably going to get sued, sooner or later. It’s why other countries are overtaking us. Now, history tells us that’s not viable in the long run. So we should study history to avoid making those kinds of mistakes.
PHILANTHROPY: A big component of your educational giving involves extensive support for museums. You’ve supported all kinds of museums: automotive, natural history, and American history. You’ve also worked in both the United States and China. In your experience, what has surprised you the most?
MR. BEHRING: Well, I decided to support the National Museum of American History because it’s our history. Now, I don’t really like the amount of money it spends, the way it’s run, and how hard it is to get things done. I’m not sure they’re doing things in a very cost-effective way. Too often, the attitude seems to be, “Well, we’re not going to let any donors influence what we do. Just give us the money and go away.” But I believe in American history enough that I want to keep doing it.
But here’s what surprised me. In China, they open their arms. They say, “Help us, tell us how this should be done and we’ll do it.” I’ve got six natural history museums over there now, and they are far superior to anything we can do here. One of them—in Shanghai—is a brand new museum, and the rest have been remodeled for natural history. When the new museum in Shanghai opens, it’ll be the best in the world. But it’s a pleasure working with the Chinese because they truly appreciate what you’re doing. Here, it seems like the people in charge want to take the credit and they want the people who paid for it to go away.
PHILANTHROPY: Can you say a little more about the new natural history museum in Shanghai?
MR. BEHRING: I gave $17 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, but I’m now doing twice that amount in China—and the result is much, much better. The new museum gets real dark, with rain and thunder. You hear the animals as the sun comes out and you see them running and playing along the back walls. They made it so realistic that you feel like you’re actually in Africa. There’s a stream running through the museum, and the animals are grouped as families rather than just displays of individuals. It’s nice to see how families live, how they actually live in the wild.
PHILANTHROPY: Let me just ask you about the experience you had at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. For years, many people considered it a disappointment. But then you funded the creation of two new permanent exhibits, one on the American presidency (“A Glorious Burden”) and one on the American military (“The Price of Freedom”). They have been widely praised and are massively popular. It must have taken intense negotiations to get the museum to come around to doing it your way.
MR. BEHRING: On the presidential exhibit, we didn’t really have any input—and it needs to be redone now. We had significant input on the “Price of Freedom,” and we like it a lot more—but I still think it could be better. For example, one of the most popular items in the exhibit is a UH-1H Huey helicopter we installed. I’d like to see more items like that. But in general, I’m happy with it, especially the end section, dedicated to the men who won the Medal of Honor. It turned out great, but it was very expensive.
PHILANTHROPY: And yet, what’s really remarkable is that you got the bureaucracy to move. What do you think was the most effective thing you did to really get traction?
MR. BEHRING: Well, we were giving the money, and so they’d do certain things. Especially now, money counts. It’s not very easy getting money these days. Our hope is that, with a few wins to our name, they’ll be more open to listening to other people, people who can give them fresh ideas. Unfortunately, some people in the museum are there for life. Their ideas would’ve been all right 20 years ago. But today we can do things better, and for less money.
PHILANTHROPY: Switching from the past to the future, let me ask: Do you intend for the Global Health and Education Foundation to be perpetual? If so, have you given any thought to ways to secure your intent to make sure that the foundation continues to abide by your principles?
MR. BEHRING: Ah, yes, yes. It will be perpetual, which is one reason why I’m still working. I’m trying to make some more money. We’ve got a couple of big projects going on now, and I hope to build them up so that my estate will be really substantial by the time I pass on. If everything works out, there’ll be enough money so that the income alone should be able to do more than we’re doing now.
But the real reason the foundation will be perpetual is that there’s always going to be a tremendous number of very poor people. There will be no shortage of needs. Now, for myself, I like working on things like wheelchairs or education, where the gift keeps on giving. Things like food or clothing, they’re there and then they’re gone. I’d like the foundation to stick with things that have enduring value, that aren’t just used up overnight.
And, of course, we want to make sure that our efforts really get to the people who need help and that it does in fact help them. To make sure of that, we’re structuring the foundation very carefully. The goal is to give the foundation enough freedom to be creative, but also to make sure it meets the right criteria for helping people. There’s plenty of good work left to be done. I just want to keep things moving.