Joanne Beyer was a member of the school board in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, where she found herself ensnared in the longest teacher strike in state history-and the second longest as well.
Both strikes were “difficult to live through,” she says. “But they also taught me something important: School boards and teacher unions spend far too much time haggling over contracts and not nearly enough time focused on children.” The experience of sitting through meetings, reading memos, and attending conferences-all supposedly about education, but really about something else-molded Beyer’s attitude. “It really changed the way I look at schools.”
And it also shaped the philanthropy of two foundations that may not enjoy the biggest endowments in the country, but nonetheless have had an outsized influence on education, plus a variety of other areas, from drug and alcohol abuse to immigration policy. That’s because Joanne Beyer has been the president of the Allegheny and Scaife Family Foundations since the early 1980s-until last June, when she formally stepped down as the president of both organizations. Working with her foundations’ principals, her trustees, and her colleagues, she leaves behind a vital legacy of philanthropy that has advanced freedom, opportunity, and personal responsibility throughout western Pennsylvania and the United States.
Ever since Beyer announced her retirement earlier this year, the testimonials have been pouring in. “Knowing you these 20-plus years has been an absolute delight,” wrote Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. “You were a friend of mine and a true champion of the grassroots movement to empower low-income people.” Mark A. Nordenberg, the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, sent a letter: “I hope you do realize just how much we appreciated your professionalism, candor, and good humor over the years, and how much we will miss you.” Adds Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity: “Joanne Beyer’s vision helped shape many struggling non-profits. She was adept at figuring out the strengths of an institution-what made the group unique or what special niche it might fill-and then urging the non-profit to concentrate its efforts in that direction. She will be sorely missed.”
Nothing in Beyer’s background would suggest a career in philanthropy, let alone one of such importance. By training, she is a dietician; she once ran a school cafeteria in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh. In 1972, however, her job was cut, and that left her wondering where her career was headed. Then an unexpected opportunity came her way. “A friend of mine said that Dick Scaife’s wife needed someone to help her get organized,” she says. She had known philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife for several years through the local Republican Party, but they weren’t close. She followed up on the lead, and for the next eight years performed secretarial duties and other odd jobs for Mrs. Scaife.
Then, in 1980, Dick Scaife needed a secretary to work at the Allegheny Foundation, which he had set up some years earlier as a vehicle for local philanthropy. Scaife had recently hired a new president who needed an assistant, and so Beyer became one of just two employees at the foundation.
A year later, however, that number was reduced to one. The president had quit, leaving behind a woman with a grand total of 12 months’ experience in the world of philanthropy. “I just kept on doing what I was doing,” says Beyer, which is a modest way of saying that she ran the foundation all by herself. A year later, Scaife decided to promote her from secretary to president. It still seemed like a big leap, but Beyer was a natural for it. None of the other staff members at the other affiliated Scaife foundations knew western Pennsylvania as she did. They had national profiles, but the Allegheny Foundation focused on local giving. “I remember one day being asked to go out to West Newton to take a look at a potential historic-preservation project,” says Beyer. “I was told, ‘You’re the only one here who knows where West Newton is!’”
The Allegheny Foundation’s grants focused on several of Dick Scaife’s personal interests, including historic preservation and youth groups. Most of them had a local twist, but not all. One of Allegheny’s most influential grants under Beyer went to the Manhattan Institute for the support of Charles Murray’s seminal book on welfare, Losing Ground (see “Eight Books That Changed America” in the September/October Philanthropy). “I remember when Charles came to Pittsburgh before the book came out to meet some of the people here,” recalls Joanne. “He spent a part of that day in my office editing chapters.”
This track record helped Beyer make a name for herself within the network of Scaife foundations, which also includes the Carthage Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation. The foundations were (and remain) separate entities with varying but not divergent missions. They share office space-and also ideas. Their small staffs often meet, mingle, and overlap. Beyer had no formal role with the other two foundations, but she frequently talked with their top staffers, Dick Larry and Dan McMichael. It was an ideal form of on-the-job training. “They knew my interests,” she says. “Dick Larry encouraged me to sit in on his meetings. So I did.” Beyer’s very first school board meeting took place only a few hours after the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986. She knew she would have to make a statement, especially because the crew included Christa McAuliffe, a public-school teacher. She asked McMichael to help compose a statement. “It was very eloquent,” she says.
When the Scaife Family Foundation was set up in 1984 as a charitable vehicle for Dick Scaife’s two children, Beyer became its operating officer as well. She began a process of gauging David and Jennie Scaife’s philanthropic interests. She also started to play a mentoring role in which she taught them what to look for in grants, how to assess an organization’s performance, and when to go on site visits. (Four years ago, the Scaife Family Foundation split into two, with David carving the Scaife Charitable Foundation out of the original organization; Jennie is now the sole principal of the Scaife Family Foundation.)
Running both organizations exposed Beyer to a broad range of philanthropic activities. If she has a particular interest, though, it’s education. For example, the Scaife Family Foundation played a key role in the start-up of the Extra Mile Foundation in Pittsburgh that operates four former parochial schools which are successfully educating inner-city children in areas where public schools are struggling. She can also discuss at length everything she believes is wrong with public education-a discussion that’s bound to last some time-and she overflows with ideas about how to address these problems.
Beyer won’t say which grant she’s most proud of giving over the course of two decades, but when asked to name a few she thinks are significant, she immediately mentions the Landmark Legal Foundation. A public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C., Landmark has a long track record of providing legal support to cutting-edge reforms. In the early 1990s, for instance, it twice defended Milwaukee’s pioneering school-choice program before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Without that success, it is unlikely school choice would have advanced to where it is today-or received the Supreme Court’s seal of approval last summer in a case whose importance President Bush compared to Brown v. Board of Education.
More recently, the Landmark Legal Foundation has uncovered evidence that the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, has run political campaigns in coordination with the Democratic National Committee without reporting expenditures to its members or the IRS, as required by law. “The NEA has every right to participate in the political process,” says Landmark president Mark Levin, “but it doesn’t have the right to ignore federal reporting requirements.” Landmark’s groundbreaking legal work has led to congressional hearings and a torrent of media attention. “Joanne Beyer was instrumental in seeing the vision we had and has been extremely supportive from the start,” says Levin.
Beyer wasn’t merely a funder to the groups she supported. “It wasn’t a traditional grantmaker role,” says Sean Duffy, the former president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, think tank on whose board Beyer sits. “She was a policy partner. She was not only a cheerleader, but a coach.” At Beyer’s urging, the Commonwealth Foundation recently undertook a major education program. “We were at a board meeting, and there was some frustration over the fact that we had experienced a few near misses on bringing school choice to the state,” says Beyer. “We wanted to try a different approach, but we didn’t want to tinker at the margins of reform, either.” So Beyer proposed something radical: What if the Commonwealth Foundation devised an entirely new system of education for the state? “Start with the premise that we are the founders and we’re starting from scratch-that was the idea,” she says. What followed were a series of brainstorming sessions and a major conference last spring. A full report is currently in the works whose goal is to provide concrete guidance for policymakers.
With any luck, the effort will achieve national attention. That’s one thing Beyer has shown a knack for doing: funding local initiatives that attract wider attention. Several years ago, Beyer became deeply involved in an attempt by the Wilkinsburg School District, just outside Pittsburgh, to privatize one of its elementary schools. An enormous legal battle ensued, with the Landmark Legal Foundation providing much of the firepower. Despite drawing interest far beyond Wilkinsburg, the effort collapsed under the pressure brought to bear by the teachers’ unions-though not before winning a ruling from the state supreme court that may prove helpful to future reform efforts.
These experiences highlight some of the most important lessons Beyer has learned:
“This is a people business,” remarks Beyer-it’s one of her favorite sayings. “You have to remember you’re funding people. The Boys and Girls Clubs might be good, but if the person running them is a nitwit, it has to color the funding decision. You always have to look for a good person who can accomplish things.” The point is that foundations are wise to find good people doing what already interests them, rather than trying to create new projects out of whole cloth. “Never tell anybody what to do,” says Beyer. “You can advise, consult, and encourage, but you have to find people you can trust to do a good job.” A corollary of this idea is not to burden recipients with byzantine application procedures, onerous reporting requirements, or project guidelines. Last fall, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which receives support from the Scaife Family Foundation, made an important decision in response to September 11. “We shifted our focus to the terrorism and security aspects of immigration,” says Mark Krikorian, the group’s president. “This would not have been possible if we had been hemmed in by a bunch of foundation-driven project mandates.” As a result, CIS has attracted wide notice and done some of its best work ever.
“Keep the lines of communication open with other foundations and grantees,” says Beyer. This is one of the best ways to learn new information. One of her foundations’ major interests has been drug and alcohol abuse, which she says is virtually ignored in medical school curricula. “We learned about a summer school program for med students, as a way for them to learn about these problems,” says Beyer, who credits personal contacts at another grantmaking organization for telling her about it. “The Funny thing is, they eventually stopped supporting that program, but we’re still there.” It’s also important to have recipients keep in touch with each other, so that they can share information about best practices. “Joanne practically wore a sandwich board for the groups she funded,” says Duffy. “She was always telling us to call each other.”
“You have to take risks,” says Beyer. “This is one of the most difficult lessons to learn, but some projects just don’t come through. They fail to meet expectations. Occasionally you even have to cancel a grant, and that’s hard to do.” There may be disappointments, but in Beyer’s view there’s no such thing as failure. “You always learn something, even when things don’t work out,” she says. “A scientist can run an experiment in a lab, and even if it doesn’t go the right way he’s probably learned a piece of information.” The flip side of risk taking, of course, is success. Beyer is one of the reasons fatherhood became a major public concern in the 1990s-the Scaife Family Foundation was the initial and long term supporter of the National Fatherhood Initiative. “The popular culture was trying to make fathers superfluous,” says Beyer. “We wanted to change that.” The fatherhood movement emphasized the unique qualities fathers bring to families-and within three years of the National Fatherhood Initiative’s birth, its issues were making the covers of national newsmagazines (see “New Day Dawning” in the March/April 2002 Philanthropy). “We didn’t know things would turn out as well as they did,” Beyer admits.
“You have to hire the right personnel,” says Beyer. Generalists are often more useful than experts in the world of philanthropy, especially for foundations that don’t have a single, narrow interest. A background in the liberal arts is advantageous, and so is some involvement in the business world. “It really helps to have run something, which doesn’t mean you have to have been the CEO of a multinational corporation,” she says. “For me, the business courses for my college degree and running the school food service was great training.” Finally, foundation staff must strive to meet the expectations of the foundation’s donors. “You have to understand the donor’s views, but understanding really isn’t enough-you also have to share those views.”
Which leads to the final lesson-what in Beyer’s mind is the most important of all for foundation staff: “It’s not your money. You always have to remember that. It’s the donor’s money. Your job is to help the donor spend his money in ways that keep with his intentions.”
Beyer has two main concerns about the future of philanthropy: an unending proliferation of nonprofit organizations and an increasing dependence on philanthropy. “It would be a fine thing if some nonprofits went away-if they defined a mission, fulfilled it, and then deliberately went out of business,” she says. “Unfortunately, a lot of them think they’re entitled to exist forever, and that they’re entitled to support with no questions asked.”
Beyer, for her part, isn’t totally exiting the world of philanthropy. She stays in touch with her old colleagues, serves as a trustee of the Allegheny Foundation, and remains on the board of the Philanthropy Roundtable.
Some accidents, it turns out, are for the best.
John J. Miller is a writer for National Review and the author of The Unmaking of Americans.