In September 2010, Denis Calabrese was named president of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in Houston. The Arnold Foundation—founded by Giving Pledge signatories John and Laura Arnold—has thus far been known for its major contributions to K–12 education reform, including $20 million to jumpstart the KIPP and YES Prep charter school expansion in Houston and $10 million to fund the human capital overhaul in Washington, D.C.
Calabrese will work with the Arnolds to increase their philanthropic footprint. He was attracted by their “entrepreneurial and forceful approach to addressing problems in society,” he explains. “I was deeply impressed with their approach to philanthropy. It’s a great opportunity to be able to achieve real change.” Their areas of focus currently include transformative change in K-12 education and criminal justice reform. Other goals, Calabrese says, “are being developed.”
According to Calabrese, the Arnolds’ approach will be characterized by three words: transformative, entrepreneurial, and aggressive. “They are interested in exploring new ways of doing things, new methods, and ways to get the most out of the folks who know these issues,” Calabrese explains. “And even though the Arnolds are in their 30s, they’re impatient—in a good way—for change, and want to help as many people as they can. Both of them are very involved in the day-to-day operations of the foundation. I can’t overstate their interest and involvement.”
Calabrese believes that his background in public policy has prepared him for his work at the Arnold Foundation. He has worked on “how to communicate problems and solutions to the general public and decision-makers,” he says, and while “some of the solutions are legislative or regulatory-based, many of the solutions are knowledge- or behavior-based, which is also an opportunity for philanthropy.”
Calabrese served as chief of staff to a former U.S. House Majority Leader. More recently, he has worked on both state and national issues, working, for example, as a chief strategist in the successful effort to reform the civil justice system in Texas. “We took Texas from one of the worst states for litigation abuse to one of the best in the country in just over a decade,” he remarks.
Prior to joining the Arnold Foundation, Calabrese was founder and principal of the Patriot Group, a public affairs firm. He is a graduate of Rice University with a degree in economics and political science.