When Bill Daniels, “the father of cable television,” died in 2000, he left instructions on how the $1 billion in his foundation, the Daniels Fund of Denver, should be spent. The articles of incorporation and bylaws stated that 30 percent was to fund scholarships for high-character teens from low-income families, and the remaining 70 percent “would fund grants in the areas of Aging, Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, Amateur Sports, Disabilities, Education, Homeless and Disadvantaged, and Youth Development.“ This left the Daniels Fund enough direction to honor the intentions of a man whose business, Daniels & Associates, was the hub of the cable-television industry from its infancy to adolescence, bringing together buyers and sellers to broker mergers and acquisitions.
Still, when boxes of personal correspondence were discovered in Bill Daniels’ office files, Daniels Fund president and chief executive Linda Childears saw an opportunity to understand Daniels’ intentions even better. “He was a master at relationships and remembered the details of people’s lives,” says Childears, who first worked with Daniels in 1987 to establish the world’s first bank for children, the Young Americans Bank. “He knew people’s businesses. He knew their spouses. He remembered their kids’ names.”
And he wrote letters, hundreds of them, neatly keeping copies that are now being scanned into a computer to be categorized and coded by topic. “We’ll have an easy retrieval base,” says Childears, “so we can ask, for example, ‘What did Bill say about ethics?’ Because of this coding system we will come up very quickly with maybe 20 documents that will help answer that question in Bill’s words.”
This commitment to ensuring donor intent is a hallmark of the Daniels Fund, which supports nonprofit organizations in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, as well as funding some national programs. The largest foundation in the Rocky Mountain region, last year the Daniels Fund surpassed $141 million in cumulative grants and scholarships awarded since the year 2000. The Fund is best known for giving low-income students with leadership potential a chance to pursue the American dream of going to college and moving on to a happy and productive life.
Rachel Chavez was one such young person who had dreams, but then her father was sentenced to prison and her mother abandoned her children to pursue another relationship. Chavez ended up living with another family throughout her high school years, earning nearly perfect grades. Still, she didn’t have the money to go to the college of her choice.
In April, she was named a Daniels Scholar. Her scholarship will pay for all college expenses not met by financial aid, including books and a laptop computer. Chavez will be attending Regis University in Denver.
Chavez is among 200 Daniels Scholars named this year. They join a prestigious group of more than 800 Daniels Scholars named since 2000.
Character and Determination
A product of the Depression and a World War II Navy fighter pilot, Daniels attended college for a few years before leaving without a degree. He liked underdogs and saw the free enterprise system as the “eighth wonder of the world,” but would add that the ninth is that “so few people know how to access it.” Throughout his life, he provided “second chances” to countless people in need. He would often have one of his associates drop off an envelope of money to a family in need that he read about in the newspaper. This act became known as his “drive-by philanthropy.”
Daniels had a gift for recognizing the inner potential of people he met. “He would work with people who had no track record and somehow, because he believed in them, they delivered,” says Childears. “He expected them to make the most of it and carry out their part of the deal.”
Sometimes that meant overcoming hardships. His older sister, Dorothy, was developmentally disabled, and Daniels himself suffered from hearing loss, possibly due to his service as a fighter pilot. His hearing loss limited his ability to interact in social occasions, but Daniels overcame that with, among other things, his voluminous correspondence.
When the Children’s Hospital in Denver asked for help in building a state-of-the-art hearing center, “every one of us just smiled,” says Childears, because it’s a project Daniels would have loved. The board gave $3 million to establish the Bill Daniels Center for Children’s Hearing, which provides state-of-the-art treatment to children from low income families.
Each of the board’s 11 members knew Daniels personally. The board has established four-year terms, with renewal possible after a written evaluation by fellow members. “If a board member’s peers think this person isn’t contributing, he or she may lose their board seat,” says Childears, a member of the board since the Fund was established. “I think that’s very healthy. It makes us accountable to each other as well as to Bill.”
Daniels established the foundation in 1997, three years before his death, designing it to exist in perpetuity. Looking to the future, Daniels saw education as a key to opportunity.
“We find some of the best thinking on school reform coming through our contact with the Philanthropy Roundtable and its members,” says Childears. “We support charter schools, the voucher movement, and we support public schools that are doing innovative things to help education. The aim is not to put more and more money into the same programs that have not produced results.”
A better approach, says Childears, is to give opportunities and reward those who bring results—in the spirit of Bill Daniels.
Mark O'Keefe is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.