Barbara Hyde radiates an infectious enthusiasm for her work. President of the J.R. Hyde III Family Foundation and trustee of the J.R. Hyde Sr. Foundation since 1993, Hyde is devoted to the cultural, educational, and economic growth of her adopted hometown, Memphis, Tennessee.
Though her husband, Pitt, is a native of the area, where he founded AutoZone, Hyde has traveled a long and varied road to Memphis. She majored in English and religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which she attended on a Morehead scholarship. While at UNC, she was a member of the Order of the Old Well, an honor society that recognizes students of high character who demonstrate exemplary humanitarian service. Shortly after graduation, Hyde left for Kenya to teach secondary school. She then returned to UNC as a development officer and soon became executive director of UNC’s Arts and Sciences Foundation, serving from 1987 to 1992. During her tenure she met her husband, also a UNC alumnus.
The Hydes have made considerable investments in Memphis. They are two of the six investors responsible for purchasing the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies and moving the team to Memphis. They have also invested in riverfront development, the National Civil Rights Museum, Ballet Memphis, and a Smithsonian-sponsored rock and soul museum. They are currently supporting efforts to create a new bio-tech research park in the city’s medical district.
K-12 education is a special interest of the family, and with Hyde’s help, Memphis won a national competition to bring New Leaders for New Schools to the city. She is also founding board chair of Memphis’ Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Diamond Academy.
Hyde recently spoke with Philanthropy about education reform and her family’s efforts to revitalize Memphis.
PHILANTHROPY: You started your life in California and Atlanta, and then went to school in North Carolina. Why has Memphis, your adopted hometown, become so important to you?
MS. HYDE: Largely because that’s where my husband, Pitt, is from and where the family made its money. The resources of the foundation were generated in Memphis, and we’re committed to focusing on the Memphis community. I’ve loved it as an adoptive community. Compared to Atlanta, where I grew up, it’s smaller, a little easier to get your arms around. It still has a whole lot of soul. It has all the characteristic issues of an urban area. So it’s a perfect laboratory for philanthropic work.
PHILANTHROPY: You and your husband moved your business and your foundation into the heart of downtown. How important is it for nonprofits, both donors and grantees, to pass the “zip code test” by living in the areas they serve?
MS. HYDE: I think it’s important for several reasons. First, it allows you, as a donor and civic leader, to be more in touch with what you’re trying to accomplish, to see and taste and feel what’s going on in the city you serve. For us, it’s fun, too. The downtown is hopping now. There’s a lot of revitalization and great energy downtown. Being there charges us up. It’s not a hardship at all.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve supported every type of school, including public charters, private independents, and inner-city parochial schools. Why support so many types? Is competition among schools an important part of urban school reform?
MS. HYDE: Competition is important, and a big part of our focus has been expanding educational opportunities outside of the traditional public-school delivery system. So we fund public charter schools, and the Catholic diocese, and some private schools focused on at-risk kids. We’re not wed to any one delivery system. We like the multiple approach. We recognize that the majority of children are in public schools, and we want to push those schools from the outside at the same time that we’re trying to nurture change and support positive models from within. We’ve tried not to spread ourselves too thin in terms of the number of schools that we’re supporting. We try to pick a few strong leaders from each of the delivery systems.
PHILANTHROPY: Should non-Catholics care about the declining number of Catholic schools?
MS. HYDE: We’re not Catholic, we’re Episcopalians, but our reasons for supporting the Catholic diocese and re-opening inner-city schools in Memphis are severalfold.
First, when you look at urban schools of every type and ask yourself who’s doing a great job for at-risk kids using only a moderate amount of resources, you find the Catholic schools in most urban centers do a fantastic job. In Memphis, they averaged significantly less than the per-pupil spending of Memphis city schools, even as they served the same population of at-risk, low-income children of color. Yet they achieved dramatic results.
We found great commitment and talent in these schools. We also found many opportunities to use parochial facilities that had been closed but are still in decent shape. This lets us leverage some additional private support by helping the diocese re-open the schools. We’re now up to nine parochial schools we support.
PHILANTHROPY:: The Memphis diocese has a project called Jubilee Schools. Why do you support it?
MS. HYDE: The diocese has a very talented, impassioned superintendent of schools named Dr. Mary McDonald, and she has led the charge on behalf of the diocese, going to private donors, Catholic and non-Catholic, to make the case for re-opening these schools. The name “Jubilee” comes from the Church’s jubilee year in 2000, when the effort started. It focused initially on a handful of donors in Memphis. We’re not the biggest donor, incidentally.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve worked with the Memphis public school district too. How will you know if these efforts have succeeded?
MS. HYDE: We have some short- and longer-term benchmarks, all of which connect to student achievement. When we start to see the needle move on student achievement, when we start to see schools come off the No Child Left Behind list, when we start to see leadership at the school level changing and being more open to reforms, then we will begin to feel that there’s success. In the end, our goal, like that of many donors in urban education, is to make sure every child in our community has access to a great school. I don’t care what it looks like. I don’t care who’s running the school, whether it’s a district school or a Catholic school or whatever.
We’ll know we’ve succeeded when low-income parents and especially families of color believe they have a high-quality choice for their child.
PHILANTHROPY: Donors in K-12 education tend to get angrier and tougher as they go along, because they have rude awakenings about the obstacles to better schools. As an experienced education funder, do you have any warnings for philanthropists who are considering efforts in urban school reform?
MS. HYDE: Well, like many donors, we started out funding things that we thought were important—after-school programs, classroom libraries, lots of things that are good and somewhat important but essentially on the periphery. I think as a donor you have to be careful to avoid these “feel good,” easy gifts, and instead look hard at investments that will be difficult, that will require more than just your money. They will require you to roll your sleeves up, and they won’t always be popular, but you should only make investments that will really make a difference.
PHILANTHROPY: Some veteran donors in the field have stressed that it’s no longer enough to support nonprofits that deliver good schooling. In this view, the biggest problem in many locales is bad public policy that prevents good schools and nonprofits from flourishing and expanding, and so funders must think about ways to support better public policies. Do you agree?
MS. HYDE: Now I can really get up on a soapbox. I’m passionate on this subject because I think if you care about changing school districts and affecting schools, you have got to be willing, again, to roll up your sleeves and attack the problems on multiple fronts. You have to help support and create school models that work, but you also have to be willing to take a seat at the political table and use your money both in appropriate philanthropic ways to support advocacy efforts directed at public policy and also to use your personal dollars to help recruit and support candidates.
We started an entity in Memphis called EdPac, designed to identify, recruit, and train candidates for the school board, because even if we give millions and millions every year, the budget of the Memphis city school district is the better part of a billion dollars. If we can improve how those funds are used to educate children, we can have a much more dramatic effect.
Now this is not easy. If you’re a conventional philanthropist, most of the time people will applaud what you do. But when you start getting into politics and taking stands in support of some candidates and not others, people get very nervous. Some of your fellow donors may decide they don’t want to support other causes you’re involved in. The approach is not without risk, but I think the potential payoff is huge. Courageous donors have to be willing to try it.
PHILANTHROPY: Speaking of politics, just a few decades ago in Memphis one of the biggest crusades was civil rights. You and your husband are donors to the city’s National Civil Rights Museum and even presented the museum’s highest award to Nelson Mandela. Do you see your education work related to civil rights?
MS. HYDE: Absolutely. I wouldn’t be the first to say that education is the last front of the civil rights movement and therefore a natural battle for us in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. The data clearly show it is largely children of color who are held back by the present failures of public education.
We work very hard in Memphis to make that point, and we’ve begun to build more of a grassroots movement around things like charter schools, which were viewed as sort of rich elitist initiatives. We want to provide support for many voices. In the civil rights movement, it was Christians and Jews, blacks and whites who literally linked arms and crossed the Selma bridge. That’s the kind of movement we need to have in urban education reform.
PHILANTHROPY: You once said, “Fundraising is much easier than good grantmaking. It’s easy to give away money; it’s hard to give in a way that really has an impact and does lasting good” and avoids “unintended consequences.” How should philanthropists think about achieving a lasting impact?
MS. HYDE: Good grantmaking is largely about focus and follow-through. If you want to have an impact, you need to be thoughtful about your focus, and then you need to keep your nose to the grindstone and stay at it. You need to measure results and make changes in your course when it looks like things aren’t working.
PHILANTHROPY: Some critics of philanthropy say the field’s biggest weak spot is covering up mistakes. Do you agree?
MS. HYDE:Yes, too many of us do not talk about our mistakes. But some places, like the Gates Foundation, Annie E. Casey, and a few others are becoming much more transparent about the work they do and are leading the charge. Smaller family foundations can really learn from that. All of us should be encouraging each other to make critical assessments of our work.
PHILANTHROPY: You were a teacher at a secondary school in Kenya. Do you miss it? What did you learn from the experience?
MS. HYDE: I only did it for a year, but it had a huge impact on my views of education. First, it taught me how hard it is to be a good teacher. It gave me an enormous appreciation for the energy and tenacity and intellect required. I think I was a very average teacher, even though I have a lot of passion for teaching, and I have great admiration for teachers as a result.
Second, in ways I wasn’t aware of at the time, it was my first lesson in the power of school choice. In Kenya then, and I think it’s still the case, access to public education is only guaranteed through primary school. Beyond that there are only a few government-sponsored schools. Most secondary education is delivered either by mission schools or by what’s called “harambee” schools. Harambee means self-help. The harambee schools, where I taught, are true neighborhood schools, the result of people in a village coming together to create a school for their children.
These are private schools in the truest sense. There’s no question about parental involvement, control, and investment. Then there are the children. What struck me so powerfully was the contrast with American schools, where the talk is all about the lack of discipline and the way teachers must spend so much energy just maintaining control in the classroom.
In the Kenyan school where I taught, children knew in their bones it was a privilege to be in school. I never had a discipline issue. Ever. And it wasn’t because I was a master at classroom management; I was a novice. But when a child would start to act up, before I ever had a chance to intervene, another kid would reach over and say, “You stop that! This teacher has come all the way from America to teach us. If you don’t want to learn, go home.” It was remarkable, and I thought, “Ah-ha—education is not an entitlement to these children, it’s a privilege. Their families have had a choice and made a commitment to this school, and so every member of the family is totally committed.”
The children came from families who lived in mud huts with no electricity or running water, and almost all of their parents lacked formal education. The experience showed me that families living in poverty with undereducated parents could still be champions of a great education, given the right set-up and choices.
PHILANTHROPY: You once said, “I desperately want Memphis to be the kind of city that my children will want to stay in when they grow up.” How does being a mother affect your giving?
MS. HYDE: I think being parents informs Pitt and my giving on multiple levels. When you have a child, you become much more focused on the future and on doing whatever you can to leave the world a better place. Parenting reminds us to be future focused.
It also informs my passion for education, because I’m in a position to give my children the best education that exists, and I think every parent should have that opportunity, regardless of economic circumstances. It seems patently unfair that children of affluence should have more educational choices than children in poverty, when really the reverse should be true if we want to level the playing field. That makes me want to fight the battle even harder.
I also think that good philanthropy, like good parenting, is not about instant gratification. It has its ups and downs. It requires us to take the long view, make hard decisions, and not please everybody—some of those hard things you learn when you’re trying to be a good parent.
PHILANTHROPY: There seems to be a trend toward seriously engaged husband-and-wife teams in philanthropy. Does your marriage affect your giving?
MS. HYDE: In our case, Pitt was a philanthropist long before I ever dreamed of the possibility, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him. I think we continue to learn from each other. That’s part of the dance, the fun of husband-and-wife philanthropy: the different perspectives you each bring to the table, the different skill sets. I’ve always said two heads are better than one, and if a couple can both be passionately engaged in their philanthropy, their philanthropy will be the better for it.
I think their relationship will be the better for it, too. It is one of many things that Pitt and I have in common and we love to talk about. Neither of us plays golf, for instance. We’d rather do this work together.
The trend in active husband-wife partnerships in philanthropy is natural, I think. Women today have had more professional experiences than in the past, and they often bring resources of their own into the picture; so it’s a natural consequence of women’s increasing engagement in leadership across the board and a great model for our children. Pitt and I want our son and daughters to look at our philanthropy and to see themselves in the future doing what we’re doing.
PHILANTHROPY: Speaking of leadership, how can urban school districts get the kind of leaders they need?
MS. HYDE: Leadership is important at every level in the district. Obviously, it starts with the superintendent. We’re blessed in Memphis to have a very energetic, smart, reform-oriented superintendent in Dr. Carol Johnson, and that kind of leadership really leverages our philanthropic investment. And yet at the end of the day, leadership from principals may be more critical than from the superintendent. A school’s culture and the caliber of teaching that occurs are largely determined by the principal.
We asked ourselves, “How can we make more schools in Memphis better schools?” We looked around the country at different curricula, different delivery systems, and found no real correlation between money spent and quality of results. It’s leadership that has the strongest correlation with results. Whenever you find a great urban school that’s producing results in spite of difficult circumstances, it’s always because of a tough principal who makes things happen.
We had a light-bulb moment and realized, “If we can help produce and support strong principals, who have deep commitments to excellence, who understand what good management requires, then we can dramatically multiply the impact of our dollars.”
We looked around the country to see who’s producing great principal leadership. There are lots of good programs; we think the country’s best program is New Leaders for New Schools. Its goal is to dramatically improve achievement for all children by creating an urban principal corps—a corps of principals who are selected, trained, and supported in their efforts to turn around urban schools. New Leaders combines the best practices of business with the best instructional models and the best human resource techniques to create change in districts. I think the leverage that is going to be created will be powerful.
For example, we led the community coalition that brought New Leaders for New Schools to Memphis. Over the next four years, New Leaders will train 60 new principals for Memphis city schools. That’s a third of the principals in the city school district. If a third of the district’s principals are high-performing, understand what great schools look like, and have the tools to get there, then they won’t only affect the children in that third of city schools; many other Memphis principals will look at what’s happening in these schools and want the same kind of autonomy and support and training. It should help transform all the schools.
PHILANTHROPY: Will these new principals go into the city’s traditional public schools?
MS. HYDE: All will go into public schools. Some may go to public charter schools. So far in Memphis they have all gone into traditional district schools. In our support we’ve really focused on traditional Memphis schools. One of the new principals this year is going into a school of 1,400 kids on the No Child Left Behind targeted list. She has a huge job ahead of her. But these school leaders are willing to take on the toughest challenges, and it will be great to watch.