It’s a very American story. A young boy in the 1930s receives charitable care from the Mayo Clinic, which gives free service to the children of clergy like his father, a Baptist pastor. Boy lives, becomes an engineer, and starts a business in his garage with his wife and one assistant. Eventually the couple sell off part of their business, endow a foundation with around $60 million, and begin giving money back to the Mayo Clinic, as well as underwriting future pastors and engineering programs nationwide. Oh, and did we mention that they also hope to dramatically improve every K-12 school in America?
That is the story of Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Their family business, now called Generac Power Systems, opened in 1959 making generators. In the 1980s and ‘90s its sales grew 20 percent annually for 15 years, and its employees grew to over 1,000 in three countries.
The Kerns sold off one division and in 1998 used the proceeds to establish the Kern Family Foundation. They hired Paul Petitjean, a longtime associate, to be executive director. The board consists of Mr. and Mrs. Kerns, Petitjean, and another longtime business associate.
Mr. Petitjean says the Kerns’ vision for the foundation was simple yet broad: improve the moral and ethical values of our society. “We’ve narrowed that down,” he explains, “to trying to instill those values in America’s youth.” That focus in turn lead to the foundation’s two major program areas. First, reforming the country’s educational system, “because if our youth receive a good education, they should be better-contributing citizens and be able to advance themselves,” Petitjean says.
“We also believe that faith in our children’s lives will help make them stronger moral and ethical citizens,” and so the foundation’s second major program area is helping to “create young pastors who will go out and either reinvigorate an existing church or start new churches.” There are Kern Scholars programs at seven different seminaries around the country, and 39 students now receive the full-tuition scholarships.
A third, newer program area for Kern will be developing an undergraduate engineering program for private engineering schools, and Petitjean expects one or two other program areas to be added in the mid- to long-term. The foundation also provides some funding to Wisconsin charitable groups, especially ones the family has long supported.
The Kern Foundation has deliberately chosen a national focus for its work in education reform and seminary assistance. “When considering how to be effective in philanthropy,” Petitjean says, “we thought, if we adopted a local school, public or private, and made it a thriving institution, we would reach a few hundred children. Whereas if we try to fix the educational system and the way parents get to choose their children’s education, we’ve potentially helped millions.” Similarly, “if we adopted a local congregation, we could have a great impact-hire an excellent pastor, build a new church. But again, the people who would benefit would be very limited. Whereas if we create all these new pastors, our impact has an incredible multiple.”
The foundation has a clear view of what fixing America’s schools entails: “We are strong believers in the need for competition to improve education,” Petitjean says. And so the Kerns fund research on school choice at the Manhattan Institute and the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Other school reform groups they support include the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation and Children First America, and in the future they plan to support additional national school reform organizations.
Because of the foundation’s emphasis on education reform, Petitjean is “very excited about The Philanthropy Roundtable’s focus on education, and even more excited to see at the recent annual meeting the number of attendees who went to the pre-conference sessions on education. I talked to a number of people not currently funding education who now are considering it. The more donors we can bring into the field, the easier my job is. The education arm of The Roundtable has helped me meet other philanthropists working in the area and see what’s working and what’s not.”
“We’ve learned it takes much longer to commit effective philanthropy than we thought,” Petitjean admits. The foundation is expanding its staff so as to “meet our long-term goal of giving away significantly more money” as its assets are increased.
The Kerns aim to balance high goals and tough common sense in their philanthropy. As Robert Kern puts it, “With dreams alone, we don’t get far. To turn them into action, we need faith, focus, and perseverance-and the greatest of these is perseverance.”