More philanthropic donations are channeled into education than to any other sector of American society except religion. That’s been true since we were just a collection of settlements and not yet a nation. Our first college, donor supported, was created in 1636—nearly as early as our first permanent towns. America’s initial public schools for children, funded by private investors who wanted to make “New Amsterdam” attractive to additional residents, opened in the 1640s. American philanthropy created many of the greatest libraries in the world, beginning when we were a mere colony. From the seventeenth century right into the twenty-first, from preschool through independent research institutions, private giving has catalyzed many of our best educational innovations, deepened knowledge, and enhanced its sharing across our nation. 

— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister, Connor Ewing, Scott Walter, Evan Sparks

Even state-operated colleges now depend on private gifts. Indeed, public institutions like the University of Virginia and University of California, Berkeley now receive more money in a given year from individual donors than they do from the states that run them. And 2017 saw the arrival of the largest private contribution ever made to public higher-ed in the state of California. Bill Frost, who earned a degree in biochemistry from Cal Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo then founded the company Chemlogics, offered $110 million to his alma mater to strengthen its hands-on teaching of math and science. Cal Poly is a 21,000-student campus known for its “learn by doing” instructional method.

Dale Fowler graduated from Chapman University, located in Orange County, in 1958 with a degree in economics, then became a successful real-estate developer in southern California. In 2017 he and his wife Sarah Ann pledged $45 million to establish a new engineering school at Chapman. Campus officials announced that they hoped to start granting advanced technical degrees in 2019 or 2020.

Back in 2013, the Fowlers had given $55 million to Chapman to bolster its law school. Philanthropy also brought another big expansion to campus in 2016, when a new 1,044-seat performance hall opened, funded entirely by private donations. Donors Paul and Marybelle Musco footed $39 million of the $82 million cost.

At the University of Washington in Seattle (the city that is home to Microsoft, Amazon, and many other technology companies), computer science is the most sought-after major among the more than 30,000 undergraduates. In a country with a serious shortage of trained computer-science professionals, that’s an encouraging trend. Problem is, U.W. has to turn away most of those potential majors for lack of facilities. Only about a third of the students who apply get into the computer department.

Microsoft co-founder and major philanthropist Paul Allen has been helping with that problem for many years. He gave the lead $14 million gift that created the main building where U.W.’s computer training has been based since 2003. Then in 2017 he donated $40 million (with Microsoft kicking in an additional $10 million in Allen’s honor) to endow the department and turn it into a full-fledged school within the university. A major new building is under construction (mostly funded through philanthropy), and important enhancements of the student body and faculty are unfolding.

Allen is not a Washington graduate. Like many other technology titans he dropped out of (a different) college. He and Bill Gates did, however, get hooked on computers by sneaking into the U.W. computer lab while they were high-school students. He has since paid for those seminal trespasses with more than $100 million of total gifts to the University of Washington.

The Walton Family Foundation spent more than a billion dollars to help create, test out, and improve charter schools during their first 20 years. In 2016 the foundation announced it would spend another billion and a quarter over its next five years to expand charters of all sorts—now that they have proven to be among the most effective schools in operation, with particular success at getting good outcomes from disadvantaged children who were languishing in conventional schools.

Walton has long followed a strategy of concentrating its support in states with fair and open charter laws, and backing institutions and social entrepreneurs it has worked with in the past and found to be effective. Its future investments will focus on creating new schools, strengthening the programs that train teachers and principals for charters, helping families get accurate information on the performance of local schools, improving enrollment platforms, and making sure that funding and transportation access for charters are fair.

Fully $250 million of the Walton donations will be focused on one of the biggest problems holding back charter expansion: the difficulty of acquiring and expanding buildings (which many states will not pay for, even though charters are public schools). Walton will support low-interest loans that will help charter operators build enough new space to seat an extra 250,000 children. The nonprofit Civic Builders will manage this building-acquisition effort, and the money will be steered particularly to charters that have strong demonstrated academic results or promise.

Success Academy Charter Schools turned ten years old in 2016. And they celebrated the date with $10 million of donations from a variety of New York City philanthropists, plus a $25 million capstone gift from hedge-fund pioneer Julian Robertson. The $35 million total will be used to expand the school network from its current 34 campuses to a total of 100 over the next several years. And Robertson’s gift in particular will be used to ramp up the Success Academy Education Institute, an online portal where the school shares its innovative curriculum and potent teacher-training methods with any other schools who want to make use of them. Robertson was one of the major backers who funded creation of the Institute some years ago, as a means of sharing the techniques of New York state’s most successful schools.

Though it accepts almost entirely low-income and minority students by random public lottery, Success has outperformed schools in even New York’s most affluent communities—ranking in the top 1 percent statewide in math, and the top 3 percent in reading. Despite Success’s rapid growth, close to ten times as many children want to attend as can be enrolled through the annual lottery. In the latest year, a heartbreaking 17,000 families put themselves on a waiting list for open seats. Thus the importance of the major expansion funded by Robertson and other donors, including New York financier John Paulson, who offered $8.5 million back in 2015.

Two major donations—a $20 million anonymous gift, and a $10 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation—raised ambitions at a Washington, D.C.-area law school that has a tradition of cross-training lawyers in economic analysis, property rights, limited government, and individual liberty. At George Mason University in suburban Virginia, the gifts will establish new scholarships for students and new positions for legal faculty. And the law school will be named for recently deceased U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most influential judicial minds of his generation. 

In one of the largest education gifts ever from an African-American philanthropist, tech investor Robert F. Smith offered Cornell University $50 million in 2016. That sum will support the university’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and aim to expand the enrollment of black and female students in engineering generally at Cornell. It will also create a fellowship program to support engineering undergrads who want to continue on from Ithaca to graduate training at the university’s Cornell Tech campus (see 2011 entry in this section) in New York City.

In 2016 there were 233 public schools in Washington, D.C. Late that year, a local foundation announced that it wanted to fund the creation of 25 “new or radically designed” schools across the city in the five years to come. It encouraged grant applicants to “fundamentally rethink” schools and design new academies that fellow educators would want to copy and expand enough to “radically transform education” in the nation’s capital. CityBridge Education, a foundation created by Katherine and David Bradley, will put $10-15 million into the effort. The first batch of winners got grants of up to $500,000 to found or remake a successful school. Those selected included six district-run public schools, nine charter schools, and one city center for youth services.

“People often remember the first teacher to have a profound impact on their lives. For me, that teacher was the Boston Museum of Science,” states philanthropist Michael Bloomberg. “I went every Saturday….Those mornings were the highlight of my weeks....I learned to ask questions, to recognize just how much there is to learn about the world.”

In his autobiography, Bloomberg describes taking a bus and train to attend classes and lectures at the museum, starting when he was ten and continuing through high school. “I sat spellbound as an instructor brought snakes, porcupines and owls for us to hold; demonstrated the basic laws of physics with hands-on experiments; and quizzed us on every museum exhibit.” The museum “changed my life…in ways that traditional school didn’t do,” says Bloomberg—who went on to study engineering at Johns Hopkins University and then founded a company for computerizing financial data that eventually gave him a net worth in the neighborhood of $40 billion.

In 2016, Bloomberg made his fourth, and largest, gift to the museum that had been so important to his boyhood. He donated $50 million to increase the institution’s endowment by nearly 40 percent. The earnings will be used specifically to support education programs, at which the museum excels. The Boston Museum of Science has hosted 11 million school children and 122,000 teachers in the last decade, and produces an engineering curriculum for elementary students that is one of the most used in the country.

Joseph O’Neill is a Notre Dame graduate who went on to serve his alma mater on many boards. His sister Helen and brother-in-law Charles Schwab honored that service in 2017 with a $25 million gift to the university that provided lead funding for the new six-story building housing Notre Dame’s department of music. The new structure includes a recital hall, many soundproof practice rooms, a music library, and organs and other special facilities to support Notre Dame’s program in Sacred Music.

John and Tashia Morgridge were high-school sweethearts in Wauwatosa, then attended the University of Wisconsin. John later led Cisco Systems from startup with 34 employees into one of the country’s most successful tech companies. Back in 2007 they donated $175 million to provide scholarships that every year help about 1,000 low-income kids attend Wisconsin’s state colleges. In 2015 the Morgridges challenged fellow Wisconsin alums to help them bolster their already well-regarded university by increasing the number of endowed chairs for faculty. Their call led to 1,000 donations totaling $125 million, which the Morgridges promptly matched. The resulting $250 million will boost the number of endowed professorships from 142 to 300, aiding recruitment of top instructors and researchers, and boosting the quality of academics campus-wide.

At about the same time, Albert and Nancy Nicholas made a $50 million donation to Wisconsin that is expected to be matched by other donors. This $100 million will go to student scholarships—creating 400 new annual support packages.

With strong donor support, former CNN host Campbell Brown created a nonprofit news site in 2015 focused on reporting and analysis about public-school reform. “Less than half of our students can read or do math at grade-level, yet the education debate is dominated by misinformation and political spin,” announced the Seventy Four, as the outlet calls itself in reference to the 74 million school-age children in the U.S. It promised to produce a stream of challenging fact-based journalism that would hold the education establishment accountable.

The publication launched with 13 employees, thanks to strong backing from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, Jonathan Sackler, and the Buck Foundation. Its website will not sell advertising, but instead rely entirely on philanthropic donations to fund operations. “Education is one of the most important issues facing this country—and it should be on the front page every day,” stated Marc Sternberg of Walton’s K-12 program, explaining his foundation’s support.

Ron and Maxine Linde are long-time supporters of the California Institute of Technology, having trained there before building their own successful industrial firm. In 2015 they presented Caltech with an unusual present—a $50 million endowment that the college can use completely flexibly to advance promising initiatives of any sort in their early stages. Their money is earmarked not to a specific field, but to a process—early incubation of new ideas.

As soon as the idea being sprouted becomes established, it will be expected to turn to other funding, and the Linde endowment money will be redirected to some fresh unproven concept. This introduces a little of the method of the venture capitalist to university operations, and it encourages experimentation rather than bureaucracy and empire-building. “Our philosophy is to allow for flexibility, because you can’t know the future,” said Ron Linde. “Science is about exploring the unknown.”

This brought the Linde’s total giving to Caltech to more than $80 million.

Experts say that most of the capacity to lead people is learned, not innate. And, typically, about 70 percent of what helps people become effective leaders is learned through experience rather than classrooms. This presents a challenge for educators.

Two veteran philanthropists have just taken up that challenge. John Doerr is a prominent venture capitalist in Silicon Valley whose philanthropy includes co-founding the NewSchools Venture Fund. His wife, Ann, is an electrical engineer and chair of the Khan Academy, a leading nonprofit in online education. Both are graduates of Rice University in Houston—where they have just established an institute that will help every student become a more effective leader.

Upon arrival as a freshman, each Rice student will be assessed for leadership skills, then given a custom plan combining classroom instruction, personal coaching, and hands-on experience in real-life roles that will hone his or her skills during each year on campus. The program will be directed by a former brigadier general in the U.S. Army who also taught leadership at West Point and the Yale School of Management, and it is funded by a $50 million gift from the Doerrs.

“Our nation and world need great teams and great leaders,” said John Doerr in announcing the pledge. In almost all work today, the skills needed to put good ideas into action are “paramount,” he insisted. Rice president David Leebron suggested that students would be attracted to this unconventional addition to the college-training process. “We expect students to say, ‘yes, that’s what I want from an education.’”

The Doerrs previously donated $15 million to build the leadership skills of engineers, a successful effort they are now expanding. Data will be collected on how Rice students change in leadership competence as a result of this unique collegewide program. The results will be used to identify the most effective practices, with an ultimate goal of expanding useful leader training to young people at other institutions as well.

The School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the top-rated institutions of its kind, was strengthened further in 2014 by a gift from an alum who parlayed a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the school into a quirky career. T. W. Whaley donated $35 million plus 700 claims to mineral rights. This will allow, in the first year alone, 34 promising students to learn engineering on scholarship.

Whaley had grown up as an orphan, been adopted, served in the Army, then gone to college. After completing graduate school he worked on production of the F-111 fighter, then was recruited by the CIA as an expert on antenna technology. He made his money by managing the family farm, which was not only a large agricultural operation but a beneficiary of oil and gas below the surface.

Oil and gas philanthropy was also important in building up the UT Austin engineering school in the first place. It was named the Cockrell School in 2007 in recognition of many years of gifts—totaling the equivalent of $220 million—from the petroleum earnings of the Cockrell family of Houston.

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans public schools were the worst district in the second-lowest-performing state in the entire U.S. Fully 78 percent of NOLA students attended a school designated as “failing” by state standards. Then the storm wrecked 100 of the city’s 127 schools. Rather than rebuild the dysfunctional and corrupt school district, local leaders decided to instead create the nation’s most complete necklace of charter schools, then let them independently pursue a new set of higher common standards. Decision-making power was decentralized away from the old school-board bureaucracy and transferred to individual principals, teachers, and schoolhouses. Top charter operators from across the country were invited in to set up shop, and more than 40 different entities now operate charters in the city on a competitive basis. At the same time, school performance began to be monitored intensely, with the understanding that new schools given five-year operating charters would be shut down at the end of that period if their students were not succeeding.

This was bold new territory never before explored on a citywide basis, and education-reform donors leapt to help out. It is estimated that philanthropists have poured an average of $20 million per year into New Orleans charter schooling over the past decade. In 2012, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation alone unveiled $40 million of support for high-quality schools and the organizations erecting them in New Orleans. In addition to writing checks, donors have set up oversight and assistance organizations, helped social entrepreneurs plan and build new schools, aided various training and support organizations in coming to the city to support the education upgrade, created a solid voucher program to give poor children access to private schools, and worked to give families as many choices as possible. In 2014, the Recovery School District (which runs all but five of the public schools in New Orleans) closed the last of its conventional schools and became the first in America to shift entirely to charter schools to educate its children. Much work remains to be done, but already the high-school graduation rate has climbed from 54 percent to 80 percent.

In 2014, a verdict arrived in the Vergara v. California case—in which nine school children brought suit arguing that provisions of state law that block the firing of poor teachers unconscionably degrade the quality of public education available to California children. The students’ legal costs were covered by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist Dave Welch. The Los Angeles County judge’s decision struck down lifetime tenure, obstacles to dismissal, layoff rules blocking administrators from keeping their best instructors, and other constraints demanded by unions, because they result in “a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.” The ruling will be appealed, but sets an historic precedent for ending traditional school-contract terms that place the interests of school employees above those of students.

Welch’s funding, channeled through the nonprofit Students Matter, is part of a longer tradition of public-interest law philanthropy on behalf of educational improvement. Donor-funded groups like the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute have litigated over many years to protect school choice, educational tax credits, charter schools, and other elements of school reform.

Graduate school is typically a monkish undertaking, in which many participants become comparatively isolated from peers during their deep dive into a chosen academic subject. To balance this a bit, investor Charles Munger helped fund graduate-student housing at Stanford which ganged students into four-bedroom apartments in hopes that the communal interactions coming from living together would overflow into useful professional discussion. This was a success.

Munger then gave the University of Michigan the largest gift in its history—about $110 million worth of Berkshire Hathaway stock—to go even further in this direction. With his 2013 donation, Michigan built a 632-bedroom apartment building that houses graduate students in an innovative way. Every student has a soundproof bedroom and study area and a private bath, but these are grouped as seven-bedroom flats sharing extremely large and comfortable living rooms and kitchens. “Almost every occupant has to share an apartment with six others,” notes Munger. The idea is to give Michigan grad students (who come from 113 countries) easier opportunities to build relationships with fellow scholars, with the expectation that this will not only be pleasant but also encourage useful informal exchange of ideas.

Munger made a similar investment in the co-location of thinkers at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A creation of physicist-turned-businessman Fred Kavli, who donated hundreds of millions to science philanthropy before his death in 2013, the institute brings together top physicists from around the world for professional discussion outside of any teaching or research responsibilities. “Away from day-to-day responsibilities they are in a different mental state,” says director Lars Bildsten. “They’re more willing to wander intellectually.”

Physics is famously a field where insights can bubble up from insights in everyday life, or casual conversations with peers, and Kavli encourages this in its daily programming. However, there was no physical counterpart in the way the visitors were housed. Until 2014—when Munger pledged $65 million to build a permanent residence hall where it will be easy for visiting physicists to mingle informally after hours.

Then in 2016 Munger made his biggest pledge yet to his pet cause of academic housing that encourages collaboration and intellectual success: $200 million to the University of California, Santa Barbara. The entire University of California system was under pressure to expand enrollments and housing to meet high student demand, and Munger agreed to help. But he insisted that the buildings created with his donation must follow the same social-life-friendly design principles applied in his dorms at the University of Michigan and elsewhere.

Until very recently there was no comprehensive review to assess U.S. teacher colleges, as other sectors and services are rated. That changed in 2013 when the National Council on Teacher Quality used philanthropic gifts to create a new annual assessment and guide. The 2014 second edition of Teacher Prep Review, produced in collaboration with experienced school ranker U.S. News and World Report, rated thousands of college programs that train the nation’s elementary and secondary teachers, and found that low-rated teacher-prep efforts currently outnumber top-rated efforts by more than 8:1. Indeed, out of 1,668 teacher programs that were rated, only 26 for elementary-school teachers and 81 for secondary teachers earned NCTQ’s highest marks. The report found that 23 states do not have a single college track that provides high-quality math training to teachers.

By 2013, the charter schools in many U.S. cities were beginning to pile up remarkable achievement records, but the accomplishments of Boston’s philanthropically supported charters were in a category by themselves. First, it’s important to note that Boston charters enroll students who are almost indistinguishable from the students who attend conventional public schools in the city. In the latest school year, 84 percent of Boston’s charter-school students were black or Hispanic, compared to 76 in the conventional system; in both systems, seven out of ten students came from low-income families. Yet three top-tier studies released in 2013 demonstrated that the children in charters were getting much better educations.

A Stanford study found, stunningly, that charter students in Boston were learning at twice the rate of their peers in conventional schools—gaining, for every school year completed, an additional 13 months of progress in math, and an additional 12 months in reading. Charter schools were especially effective, the researchers showed, at pushing students above the “proficient” level and into the “advanced” ranking on the tough end-of-year exams administered by the state of Massachusetts.

A different study released that same year by an MIT economist and four fellow professors was a careful comparison of high-school students from charters to demographically matched counterparts in conventional schools. It found that the charter students were twice as likely to take A.P. classes (and scored higher on final exams), that they did much better in statewide tests (“with especially large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college scholarship”), that they ended up with composite SAT scores more than 100 points higher than non-charter kids, and that they were much likelier to attend a four-year college instead of a two-year college.

The final burst of high-quality charter-school research to ripple through the city in 2013 was an investigation funded by the Boston Foundation. It tracked very closely with the two results above, and added the detail that charter schools’ “largest gains appear to be for students of color, and particularly large gains were found for English Language Learners.”

But perhaps the most remarkable finding that year concerning Boston’s charter schools was that not one of them was sub-standard. Fully 83 percent of Boston charters performed “significantly better” than neighboring schools, and the remaining 17 percent produced equivalent results. Zero percent performed below the norm.

Despite these stellar outcomes, Boston and the rest of Massachusetts are burdened with a cap on the number of charter schools permitted to exist. Even in districts where conventional schools are worst, a regulation imposed by charter opponents limits the proportion of students attending charters to a maximum of 18 percent of all public-school enrollees. In 2013 that blocked spectacularly successful inner-city institutions like the Edward Brooke Charter Schools, and others, from accommodating additional students languishing on lengthy waiting lists. The Massachusetts House voted in 2014 to raise the cap slightly, but opponents organized by the state teacher union knocked the measure down in the state Senate.

In 2013, data entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg made a $350 million gift to Johns Hopkins University. The large donation was structured to fund 2,600 scholarships for needy students, and to create 50 Bloomberg professorships with special cross-disciplinary expertise. This was only the latest in a 49-year string of offerings. One year after he graduated from Hopkins with an engineering degree, Bloomberg donated $5 to the college; his first million dollar gift came 20 years after leaving campus. With his 2013 investment Bloomberg’s total giving to Johns Hopkins reached more than $1.1 billion. He also served as chairman of the university’s board of trustees for six years, and has helped raised millions from other donors.

Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder of the Blackstone private equityinvestment company, has focused his philanthropic giving on learning, including long-time support of Catholic schools in New York City and a $100 million donation to the New York Public Library. In 2014 he announced his most speculative foray yet into education philanthropy: the Schwarzman Scholars, a program modeled on the Rhodes scholarship. Every year it will unite 200 top young college graduates from the U.S., China, and other nations to study together at Tsinghua University in Beijing (the alma mater for many of China’s elites). The large role that China will inevitably play in future global developments demands deeper personal ties and more mutual understanding among the next generation of Chinese and Western leaders, argues Schwarzman. To supplement his $100 million gift, Schwarzman promised to raise another $200 million in private matching funds toward the project, which he accomplished by July 2014. The study program is scheduled to launch in 2016.

America’s schools no longer compete just with each other; they must be measured against counterparts in other countries that are turning out inventors, workers, and citizens of the future. With this in mind, a donor-supported nonprofit called America Achieves has begun offering U.S. schools a chance to assess their students on today’s top international exam—the OECD Test for Schools. In 2012, funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Hewlett, Kern Family, Barrett, Stuart, and Rodel foundations made it possible for any U.S. school to participate in a pilot offering; 105 schools did. The results showed that most U.S. students now fall in the middle of the international pack in the amount of knowledge they have absorbed. Honest, fair, sobering results like this, some reformers believe, are essential if expectations for American schools are to be raised, and an accurate roadmap created of the sectors that are most potholed and dangerous.

With the 2012 experiment successfully completed, America Achieves and its donors are now making the OECD test available to any and every high school in the U.S. And schools that have had their student body assessed will have the opportunity to participate in a “Global Learning Network” where they can collaborate, learn from each other, and pull themselves up to international standards.

Concerned that the prevailing “factory model” of education doesn’t serve either students or teachers well, a group of reformers banded together in 2012 to encourage the personalization of schooling via computerized instruction blended with live tutoring from teachers meeting with small groups. With catalytic funding from philanthropist John Fisher, the group created a new way for donors to pool investments—called the Silicon Schools Fund—with the aim of providing the startup grants to found 25 new “blended-learning” schools in the Bay Area of California over a five-year period.

The fund assists school founders with initial planning and organization, and also supports entrepreneurs who can supply them with software, curricula, training, and other resources to help their students and teachers mesh online teaching with personal instruction. It then publicizes these schools as laboratories and models for the rest of the country. In addition to the Fisher family, ten other major givers joined as charter supporters of the $25 million effort, including Bruce and Martha Karsh, Sheryl Sandberg and David Goldberg, the Sobrato family, the Emerson Education Fund, the Schusterman and Schwab foundations, and others.

College students shelled out an average of more than $1,200 each for books and supplies in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the College Board. In many basic subjects like introductory economics, biology, and statistics, a single textbook can cost up to $200. A new philanthropic product is now changing that. OpenStax College, established at Rice University with philanthropic funding from the Arnold, Hewlett, Gates, Maxfield, and 20 Million Minds foundations, creates open-source, peer-reviewed textbooks for today’s most popular college classes and encourages professors to assign them so students can take advantage of their being free online and low-cost in print versions. Each title covers all the topics taught in a standard course, in the usual order, but professors who want to instruct somewhat differently can also customize the text to match their lessons. Thanks to a $6 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in 2013, OpenStax is now in the midst of doubling its offerings, with new textbooks in pre-calculus, chemistry, U.S. history, and psychology on the way. The initial goal is offering free texts for the nation’s 25 most-attended college courses. Creating each new textbook costs more than $500,000. But with strong donor support, and a distribution deal with the National Association of College Stores, OpenStax is on the way to its goal of supplying 10 million students with free or low-cost textbooks—saving them $750 million.

So-called “distance learning” has been available to disciplined students for generations, with instruction and degrees available by mail, television, even radio. The Internet, though, opened yawning opportunities for new forms of education that could be of a high quality yet much more accessible and lower in cost than traditional classroom education. The year 2012 was when Internet-based instruction developed some critical mass, as so-called MOOCs (massive open online courses) expanded beyond the confines of major universities and began to become widely available from specialized entities. Some of the leading ventures in online learning, like Coursera and Udacity, aspire to be profitmaking ventures; others like University of the People, EdX, and the Khan Academy are set up as not-for-profits. Donations from the Andrew Mellon, Hewlett, Gates, and MacArthur foundations, as well as donations from the philanthropic arms of companies like Google, helped launch entities of both sorts.

While several MOOCs quickly garnered millions of students, very low course-completion rates so far suggest that limited numbers of students will have the discipline and perseverance to work their way through free courses on their own. But for those who do (including many students in the developing world), online learning makes very high-level education accessible at little or no cost, without geographic barriers.

When New York City launched a competition to create a great technical college and business incubator from scratch on Roosevelt Island, right next to Manhattan, many of the world’s leading universities leapt to submit proposals and funding plans. Cornell, Stanford, Columbia, and others jockeyed for approval to build a $2 billion campus. At the last moment, Cornell announced a $350 million philanthropic contribution—the largest in its history—to clinch the win. The donor turned out to be Chuck Feeney, a Cornell graduate whose total giving to the school thereby reached a billion dollars. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create economic and educational opportunity on a transformational scale,” explained Feeney in a statement. Two years later, Irwin and Joan Jacobs, both also Cornell alums, made their own $133 million gift to what is now known as Cornell Tech. Then Michael Bloomberg donated $100 million, lauding the project’s potential for diversifying his city’s finance-heavy economy. In 2015, ground was broken for the first buildings of what could become a research and business juggernaut that does for New York what Stanford did for the Bay Area and MIT did for Boston.

In 1996 a national group calling itself Stand for Children was founded as a broad, soup-to-nuts supporter of children’s causes. Over a period of years the group shifted toward education as their focus, and then increasingly toward an understanding that protecting children’s true educational interests would often require battling the forces of the status quo in education—which were much more interested in deflecting pressure from teachers, principals, and school administrations than in fixing urban schools. As it realized that more spending for public schools would have no effect unless the structure of public education was changed, Stand for Children created a 501(c)(4) public-advocacy wing to lobby for things like more rigorous teacher evaluations, performance-based teacher compensation, and improved parental choice. The group also established 527 political action committees devoted to electing pro-reform legislators and school-board members.

Around the same time this evolution was taking place, in 2010, Betsy DeVos and other education donors merged some groups to create the American Federation for Children. It has a similar mix of charitable, advocacy, and political branches, and a particular focus on school choice, charter-school authorization, and supporting vouchers and tax credits that help poor families send their children to private schools. The very same year, Michelle Rhee founded the group StudentsFirst, with parallel (c)(3) charitable, (c)(4) advocacy, and 527 political-action wings—and a charge to act as a direct counterbalance to the power of teacher unions while advocating for increased school excellence and parental choice. The group raised more than $62 million in charitable donations in its first few years, and aims to rely indefinitely on a mix of philanthropy and dues offered by its 2 million grassroots members.

Other donor-supported reform groups mixing charitable and political work in these same sorts of way include Democrats for Education Reform, EdVoice, state chapters of the group 50CAN, and others.

Education reformers have learned over the past decade that philanthropic donations will often be much more effective if they are combined with political advocacy that supports innovation and defends new experiments from opposing interest groups. A pioneer in this area was John Kirtley, a major education donor who pulled together a 2010 grassroots rally of 5,600 Floridians to pass historic legislation offering families more educational choices. A Tampa venture-capitalist who had donated and raised millions to improve schooling for low-income families, Kirtley helped organize the demonstration in the state capital after realizing that a decade of funding charitable efforts was not enough, that he needed to coordinate his donations with legislative efforts and political advocacy.

Kirtley’s charity Step Up for Students channels money directly to families for tuition and other school expenses. The donors, schools, and families involved in Step Up eventually discovered they needed to take their case directly to legislators, so Kirtley launched a parallel 501(c)(4) group that was able to handle political advocacy, and then a 527 political action committee to support election candidates willing to make tough votes in favor of reform. From 2002 to 2008, the 527 group invested about $5 million in various legislative races. Kirtley and his philanthropic allies also donated money directly to reformist candidates.

The culmination of this combined charitable, legislative, and political work came in 2010, when the Florida legislature cast historic bipartisan votes in favor of educational choice—immediately after Kirtley and fellow donors orchestrated the largest political gathering in state history. “If you want to achieve any real progress in education reform,” Kirtley concluded, “you cannot just have a (c)(3) capability. You must also have advocacy and political capabilities. If your goal is to change K-12 policy, you’re going to have to change K-12 laws. And if legislators refuse to change those laws, then you’re going to have to change those legislators.” This conclusion has become widely shared among school reformers across the nation.

In 2008, a big effort to raise standards for English and math instruction and reduce the number of high-school graduates unprepared for college work was percolating through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Backers from the two groups asked Bill & Melinda Gates for help. They wanted to formulate intelligent, demanding benchmarks for what K-12 students should know, then advocate for their voluntary adoption by states, meanwhile building up the infrastructure of textbooks, teacher-training materials, new tests, and so forth that would be needed to help states meet such standards.

The Gates Foundation agreed to provide more than $200 million to help create what became known as the Common Core State Standards. Scores of other philanthropies also chipped in, including the Carnegie Corporation, the GE Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Broad, Hewlett, and Mott foundations, and local donors. The standards are not a course of study, but spell out competencies that each student should acquire at each grade level. For instance, the English standards emphasize nonfiction and expect students to use evidence to back up arguments they use in class. The math standards say students must learn differing ways to solve problems, and be able to explain how they got their answers. It is up to states and school districts to decide how best to teach and meet the standards.

Within two years of the Gates grant, 45 states had adopted the Common Core standards, and begun adjusting their course plans, instruction, and annual assessments. In August 2010, Kentucky became the first state to roll out new math and English curricula in its schools. Other regions followed.

End of year testing in some states made it clear that many students currently fall well short of the capacities defined as necessary under the Common Core, which caused backlashes from teachers and some parents. Other opponents expressed fears that the Common Core would nationalize education and reduce state and local control of schools. This was exacerbated by heavy-handed efforts by the Obama administration to push school districts to adopt the standards, a departure from the voluntary, private, grassroots model that got the standards rolling. In 2014, states that had signed on to the Common Core began to pull back from the standards and tests, making it unclear how common the Common Core will eventually be.

The Newark, New Jersey, school district has the dual notoriety of being one of the most expensive in the country (with-per pupil spending of up to $24,000, and a ratio of one administrator for every six students) and one of the worst performing (where the high-school graduation rate is only 54 percent and more than 90 percent of graduates who attend the local community college require remedial classes). In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to a major effort to transform the public schools of Newark. Other philanthropists chipped in with a nearly equal amount for the bipartisan crusade launched by Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie.

By 2014, much of the philanthropic money had been committed. The largest portion was used to grease new labor arrangements—an agreement with the teacher union includes a more rigorous teacher-evaluation system to identify weak instructors and qualify top instructors for annual bonuses of up to $12,500. Unfortunately it is “balanced” by huge bones thrown to the union in the form of $31 million in undifferentiated “back pay” and a continuation of seniority-based layoff protections that make it extremely difficult to replace personnel. Beyond the pay-for-performance win, the Zuckerberg gift, four years down the road, has brought the Newark public schools 50 freshly chosen principals, several new primary schools and four new high schools, and around a dozen additional charter schools. The charters are the best-performing additions so far, but political resistance has limited them to a modest role in the overall reform, with less than 30 charters currently existing in the entire city.

Meanwhile the next steps in reducing the school district’s dysfunction were supposed to be layoffs of 800 support staff and 1,000 teachers over three years, and some substantial student movement out of poor schools into others. These plans sparked “venomous” anger among reform opponents, and the 2014 election of Ras Baraka (principal of a low-performing high school and son of radical activist Amiri Baraka) as Newark mayor, on a platform promising to “take our schools back.” So while Mark Zuckerberg and philanthropic colleagues brought educational change to Newark, it is very unclear whether that change will be enduring. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg announced in 2014 that he was making another large gift to public schools—this time $120 million to the Bay Area, where, after the Newark experience, he hoped to find “a place where we can engage more directly with the community.”

Only 15 percent of eighth-grade public-school students in Philadelphia performed at grade level in 2009, one of the worst performances in the country. The city school district was bureaucratic, broke, and seemingly unable to reform itself, while local philanthropists were trying to rescue ill-served children by supporting the local charter schools and Catholic schools. Developer Mike O’Neill was one of these donors, simultaneously active in the group Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools while encouraging charter schools through his board service and donations to Mastery Charter Schools. His attitude, along with many other donors, was that any structure which produced good results for children should be supported.

In 2010, these pragmatic philanthropists and business leaders created the Philadelphia School Partnership. Their intention was to shift the local focus to the quality of instruction that children get, rather than what kind of school it takes place in. The Partnership announced it would raise $100 million from donors to create 35,000 “seats” in high-performing schools, without regard to whether the facility is district-run, charter, Catholic, or private—so long as it gets good results with primarily low-income children. The investment fund was set up to operate with demanding criteria, careful research, and all eyes on results, while remaining agnostic about school structure. The William Penn Foundation pledged $15 million to the effort, and a dozen givers offered at least a million dollars, including the Maguire and Walton family foundations and Jeff and Janine Yass, who exceeded $5 million.

The Philadelphia School Partnership also later became the local sponsor for Philadelphia’s participation in the Gates Collaboration Compact, an effort to break down walls between different types of schools serving the same population of children (see 2012 entry on the Local Projects list). The Gates Foundation granted $2.5 million to the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, to be used for things like training teachers, and building, a website where parents can compare and select all types of schools from a single entry point. Philadelphia’s Compact was the first to include Catholic schools.

For years, when disappointed observers noted how little was being learned by children in inner-city schools, the riposte from the public-school establishment would be “it’s not the teaching, these kids are just too poor and disadvantaged in family background to do better.” Then the “no-excuses” charter schools began to appear and get much better performance out of the very same children in the very same neighborhoods, making it clear that good teaching could make a big difference even with the neediest youngsters.

Reformers began to put serious effort into replacing today’s conventional teacher assessments (which rate 90-98 percent of instructors as good or excellent even in cities where results are miserable) with more scientific and clear-eyed assessments. In 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation unveiled $45 million of funding to pioneer and then spread rigorous new systems of teacher evaluation. Working carefully in several large school districts, researchers used a mix of testing, expert evaluations, videotaped assessments, and student and teacher surveys—applied to random assignments of different children with different teachers—to see which students moved up the learning ladder, and which didn’t, and how that correlated with the teaching they received. Soon, reliable methods were developed that allow identification of effective teachers who improve student results, no matter where their students start out.

A central insight was that a teacher shouldn’t be judged simply by where a child ends the year, because that will depend heavily on what happened to the youngster before he walked into the classroom. Rather, a teacher should be judged by how her students perform at the end of the school year compared to where they stood when they came to that instructor in September.

Having developed these new teacher assessments, Gates then distributed $290 million in four test cities to help them apply the new approaches. Public schools in Tampa, Memphis, and Pittsburgh, and a coalition of five charter networks in Los Angeles, were given grants to aid them in implementing the new measures of teacher effectiveness. This included offering extra training and support to teachers, and ultimately tying each teacher’s tenure decision and compensation level to how effective she is. There is no use in sorting teachers into effective, middling, and ineffective piles, school reformers recognize, unless schools are willing to act to keep great teachers with merit pay and job protections, while offering weak performers compensatory training and ultimately showing them the door if they don’t improve. Only this kind of accountability can put teaching on a more even footing with other professions like law and engineering that are honored socially and compensated economically because they have quality controls.

Thanks entirely to philanthropic mobilizations, a few cities like Washington, D.C., Houston, and Newark have begun to put reasonably sturdy value-added teacher assessments into effect. Half of a teacher’s evaluation score in D.C. now comes from how much her students improve their standardized test scores after a year in her classroom. Other measures of increased student achievement, plus five classroom observations by principals and master teachers, are also used to grade teachers. Instructors in D.C. with a value-added score that shows them to be “highly effective” get a cash bonus of up to $27,000, and two “highly effective” ratings in a row lead to a raise in base salary of as much as $25,000. On the other hand, Washington teachers who get reviewed as “ineffective” are subject to dismissal, as are those rated “minimally effective” for two straight years, and those scoring for three years in a row at the middling level of “developing.” During the first couple years of the new assessment system, 500 teachers with poor ratings were let go from the D.C. Public Schools, and a 2013 academic study showed the system is having clear positive effects in both retaining good teachers and easing out persistently ineffective ones.

D.C.’s program was pushed through only after a group of major philanthropists, including the Walton, Robertson, Arnold, and Broad foundations, put up $60 million of financial sweetener for teacher unions. The Newark union likewise demanded more than $30 million of philanthropic money for its priorities before agreeing to a pay-for-performance deal (which still retains many loopholes protecting underperforming teachers). The philanthropists who have subsidized these initial experiments are betting, however, that when the public sees the large jumps in school quality that result when rigorous value-added assessment is applied to teaching, it will be impossible for other cities to duck making their own tough-minded reforms, thereby bringing upgrades to public-school teaching in many places.

A giant experiment is now taking place in Chicago to see what tools work best to improve the academic performance of underachieving inner-city children. Thanks to a $10 million grant from hedge-fund founder Ken Griffin, some of the enrolled families receive cash incentives to undergo yearlong parent training. Other families will have their children enrolled in a new preschool where it is the teachers who get special incentives if their students meet certain achievement levels. Additional experiments will make small payments to parents, children, or teachers if they meet narrower weekly goals.

All of the results of this careful field experiment will be carefully tracked by University of Chicago professor John List and colleagues, and compared to a control group of similar families who get no incentives. And the total 600 children involved will be followed by the investigators for decades—with attention paid to who graduates, who eventually gets jobs, who has trouble with the law, how much each person earns, etc. Because the lessons of this research will emerge only over a period of years, in steps, this kind of philanthropy requires patience. The findings, however, could eventually be pivotal in deciding how future educational dollars should be spent.

Three of the nation’s most accomplished creators of charter schools—Dave Levin of KIPP, Norman Atkins from Uncommon Schools, and Dacia Toll of Achievement First—found they were constantly short on great teachers. So they got together and resolved to build from scratch a dramatically different teacher college capable of turning smart, persistent young people into master educators. Within months of their first 2005 discussion, Levin, Atkins, and Toll had a business plan for the Relay Graduate School of Education. Then hedge‐fund founder Larry Robbins made it real by pledging $10 million to get the program off the ground. Next, the Robin Hood Foundation, the high‐octane New York City philanthropy founded by financier Paul Tudor Jones, raised an additional $20 million for the new college in one night in 2007. Relay opened its doors in 2008.

Relay’s two‐year course of study combines best practices unearthed by actual teachers practicing their craft at Uncommon Schools, KIPP, Achievement First, and other top charters. There are three distinctive qualities to the Relay curriculum: 1) Its strong preference for practical techniques proven to work with needy children, rather than educational theory. 2) Use of new technology: More than 40 percent of coursework is delivered online, and intensive video recording is done of each enrollee’s classroom instruction, for later study and dissection. 3) A demand for measurable results: Fully half of the program’s graduation credits are tied to measured student outcomes, and to receive a master’s degree from Relay you must demonstrate that your pupils made at least a full year’s worth of academic growth in one year of school time.

Relay was the first new graduate school of education to be founded in New York City in 80 years. By 2015 it had already been expanded to Chicago, Houston, Memphis, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Camden, and Wilmington. It was training more than 1,400 teachers and principals per year, with other campuses to come soon.

The nation’s seventh-largest school district in Houston, Texas, has been plagued by the familiar problems of urban public education—including four out of every ten students failing to graduate from high school within six years of starting ninth grade. To blaze a path to better results, a group of local donors plus a few national philanthropists made a massive commitment in 2008 to create tens of thousands of school seats in new high-performing charter schools. Two of the most effective charter operators in the U.S.—KIPP and YES Prep—were born in Houston, and they agreed to add dozens of new campuses between them, with the intention not only of providing excellent education to tens of thousands of children themselves but also of modeling and inspiring improvements in Houston’s conventional public schools. Philanthropists backed this effort with more than $90 million of donations: $20 million from the Houston Endowment; $11 million from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation; $10 million each from Jeff and Wendy Hines, John and Laura Arnold, and the Gates Foundation; $9 million from the Walton Family Foundation; $6 million from the Brown Foundation; $5 million from Don and Doris Fisher; $4 million from Jan and Dan Duncan. As of 2014, the Houston charter-school expansion was about half complete, with 22 KIPP schools open on their way to 42, and 13 YES Prep campuses in operation toward an eventual goal of 19. Already, one out of every five Houston schoolchildren attends a charter, with excellent results, and that ratio will increase as KIPP and YES create an additional 20,000 seats while other charter operators undertake their own expansions.

In 2004, high-school-age cousins living 1,500 miles from his Boston home) were begging hedge-fund employee Sal Khan for help on their math homework. In response he began doing online tutoring, and then taping short instructive videos in a closet of his house, which he posted on YouTube for his family members to work their way through. Once public, anyone could look at them. Before long hundreds of thousands of people were. Khan has a gift for calmly and quickly getting to the nub of technical instruction, and then explaining problem-solving methods in clear, simple language. As the audience for his video lessons exploded, Khan decided to quit his job at the hedge fund and give himself a year to see if he could create “Khan Academy” as a viable educational nonprofit providing instruction on a wide range of topics.

A few months into the experiment, he was burning through $5,000 a month of personal savings to support his family, and feeling stressed. Then he received an unsolicited $10,000 donation from Ann Doerr, wife of prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist and donor John Doerr. A friend’s child had been helped by Khan Academy videos and she was intrigued. She and Khan met for lunch; she later gave him $100,000 to stay afloat. Two months after that meeting, Doerr sent Khan a text saying she was sitting in a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival and Bill Gates was lauding his online instructional videos in a speech. It turned out the Gates children were also improving their math skills with the free Khan videos. Barely a year after Khan quit his hedge-fund job, the Gates Foundation invested $1.5 million to expand operation of the Khan Academy, followed not long after by another $4 million donation. Google awarded $2 million to translate content into ten languages and create additional practice problem sets.

There are now efforts to fold Khan Academy materials directly into the instructional process at a few pilot schools. Khan Academy is being used by homeschoolers, by students seeking extra help, and by adults brushing up on old skills. Its instructional videos have been viewed more than 580 million times. The organization’s self-described mission is “to provide a world-class education for anyone, anywhere, for free.”

The University of Chicago has long been known for its Common Core—a curriculum based on the foundational texts of Western civilization, like Homer’s Greek epic The Odyssey. It was thus fitting that the financial-aid program designed to relieve tuition burdens on Chicago students, created in 2007 after an anonymous gift of $100 million, was called the Odyssey Endowment. The nameless donor (dubbed Homer) offered to immediately pay all annual costs so that the scholarships could be launched quickly, while requiring the university to raise matching funds suffcient to make the grants program a permanent endowment. The Odyssey Scholarships enable students whose family income falls below $60,000 per year to receive full rides. Those in the $60-75,000 range receive grants for half of their obligations. The gift was given, the donor wrote, “in the hopes that future generations of students will not be prevented from attending the college because of financial incapacity, and may graduate without the siren of debt distracting them from taking risks and fulfilling dreams.” Additional gifts, like a $50 million donation from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Moritz in 2016, continued to further expand the tuition subsidy. The Odyssey program has led to increased matriculation of low- and moderate-income students at Chicago.

In 2017, another anonymous donor gave $140 million to another fine university—MIT—out of a similar interest in keeping that institution accessible to families of modest income. “As a past recipient of MIT’s generous financial aid, I benefited tremendously from the opportunity to pursue my MIT education,” stated the donor. “I am blessed to be able to give back to the Institute so other students can experience what I did.”

In 2007 a panel of business leaders and academics organized by the National Academy of Sciences published a report expressing alarm over the state of math and science education in the U.S. That same year, the National Math and Science Initiative was organized as a nonprofit to actually do something about the problem. Starting with an initial donation of $125 million from ExxonMobil, and evidence that Advanced Placement courses are the best way to prepare students for success in technical fields, NMSI set out to make A.P. classes mainstream. Organizers copied a program from Dallas (also created by concerned business donors) that had proven wildly successful at drawing new students and teachers into A.P. coursework and then helping them succeed. Before the model program was launched only 26 African-American students in the entire Dallas school district earned a passing score on an A.P. exam. Within a few years, over 1,100 did. Other groups of students flourished in similar ways.

NMSI set out to make A.P. success common across the country by relying on two techniques in particular: special supplemental summer training for math and science teachers, and financial incentives for both teachers and students. When a new school enters NMSI, program leaders conduct site visits to identify which teachers at the school best fit the program. Then they train the teachers over the summer, and mentor them throughout the school year. And at the end of the year teachers are given cash payments of $100 for every one of their students who passes an A.P. exam, plus a $1,000 bonus if a targeted number of students earn passing scores. Students likewise get a $100 cash reward if they pass the test.

All NMSI schools must allow every interested student the opportunity to take an A.P. class. “Teachers have to think differently about who is an A.P. kid,” says a spokeswoman. In addition to carefully prepping the teachers and incentivizing instructors and students alike, NMSI offers students in the program extra study sessions outside of class hours. The nonprofit also offers longer-term curricular help to schools, bringing in specialists who advise on the best sequence of classes, starting back at sixth grade, to prepare students for A.P. success by the time they’re in high school.

As of 2015, NMSI’s A.P. initiative was used in 620 schools located in 26 states. Companies like ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Texas Instruments, and many others, plus institutions like the Carnegie Corporation, and Gates, Dell, Heinz, and Perot foundations, as well as individual donors, have made this possible by providing large contributions to both the national nonprofit and local schools that are implementing the program.

And results have been dramatic. In the average school participating in NMSI, the number of passing scores on math and science A.P. exams jumps 85 percent in the first year, and nearly triples by the end of year three. Though schools using NMSI’s A.P. program are only 1.5 percent of the total schools in the U.S., they account for 7.4 percent of the country’s overall increase in qualifying math, science, and English A.P. exam scores. As NMSI continues to expand rapidly, the lift it produces under our math and science wings will increasingly be felt nationally. The latest add-on to the program, thanks to $900,000 of initial funding from Lockheed Martin, extended NMSI to several dozen schools near military bases that serve military families. Almost immediately these schools saw their qualifying A.P. scores rise at nine times the national average.

NMSI has also led the national replication of a University of Texas program called UTeach that makes it easy for college students majoring in math and science fields to become teachers. The UTeach program now operates on 40 college campuses, and more than 7,000 collegians are enrolled. Five years after entering the teaching profession, eight out of ten UTeachers are still giving math and science lessons to children. By 2020, about 5 million students will have been influenced by a UTeach graduate.

Created in 2007, the Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History was a response to the low level of civics knowledge among American undergraduates. The center identifies academics who are expert or promising teachers of Western political philosophy and America’s history and founding principles, and assists them—offering professional development, two-week seminars, research fellowships, lectures and special events, and other resources for scholars at all career levels, from professors to post-docs to graduate students. It operates job boards to connect proven scholars to departmental openings at top universities.

The center has also funded the establishment of 58 dedicated on-campus institutes where excellent research and teaching can gain a wider audience. These included the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for the Study of Representative Institutions at Yale, the American Democracy Forum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Graduate Program in Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the Benjamin Franklin Project at MIT.

The center is funded by donations from Jack Miller, an entrepreneur who created an office-supply company that became a core of the Staples company, along with other individuals, businesses, and foundations. The center distributed $7 million in 2014, and has committed over $60 million since its 2007 founding. With more than 750 faculty partners on hundreds of college campuses, and rapid expansion continuing, the Jack Miller Center has emerged as the leader in promoting high-quality civics education at the collegiate and graduate levels.

Marrying K-12 education with the technology revolution has been a slow and uneven process, with many dead ends. Halfway through the first decade of the new millennium, however, some educators with philanthropic backing began to figure out new ways of instructing that could increase quality and efficiency in some of the same ways that other fields have been dramatically upgraded by computerization. An emerging synthesis concentrates on freeing teachers and students to work together intensively on each child’s blindspots by transferring to computer software much work that is either drill-based or best accomplished when personalized for each student.

One of the schools that pioneered this new mix of human and electronic learning was Rocketship Education. Founded in 2006 by a donor who had been both a teacher and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, the school won financial backing from some prominent technology entrepreneurs like Netflix founder Reed Hastings (who donated $250,000 for each of the first eight schools opened), Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and her husband Dave Goldberg of SurveyMonkey, and Arthur Rock, as well as philanthropic heavyweights like the NewSchools Venture Fund, the Charter School Growth Fund (which offered a $2.3 million grant in 2008 to expand the chain), and the Broad, Schwab, Dell, and Koret foundations.

Rocketship began with one San Jose school that integrated two hours of online learning into every day, relying on personalized-learning software that both instructs and tags problem areas identified via frequent quizzes, while teachers circulate through the learning lab to solve individual problems. By 2014 there were eight Rocketship schools in San Jose, serving more than 4,500 students (with 2,500 families on the waiting list).

Their results proved powerful: though 90 percent of the students came from low-income families, and 75 percent were English-language learners, fully 80 percent of Rocketeers scored at the “proficient” or “advanced” level on the California Standards Test (results otherwise seen only in schools located in California’s ten most affluent districts). With funding from the Bradley Foundation and other philanthropists, Rocketship expanded beyond Silicon Valley to Milwaukee, then to Nashville, and will open a school in Washington, D.C., in 2016, with other locations to come.

Another early inventor of blended learning was the Arizona school Carpe Diem. It relies on personalized computer instruction supplemented with old-fashioned one-on-one and small-group teaching to help students when they reach sticking points in their online work. Its 300 sixth to twelfth graders begin their efforts at computer workstations, and when software programs identify areas where they are not understanding concepts, a master instructor swoops in for special tutoring. Thanks to donor support there were Carpe Diem schools operating by 2015 in Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and Arizona, with more planned.

In many other schools as well, impressive test results and heavy demand from families have turned blended learning into one of the more promising fields within the U.S. school-reform movement. Scores of donors are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to launch new blended schools, expand existing ones, fund software ventures, and found coordinating organizations.

Some of the most successful school-reform efforts today are driven by regional nonprofits with broad mandates to improve teaching, train principals, support school founders, and incubate launches of new charter schools (see adjoining entry on New Schools for New Orleans). Another highly successful example of such a leadership group is the Mind Trust of Indianapolis. By organizing philanthropic support, cultivating new school leaders, conducting research, and forging partnerships with organizations such as Teach For America, TNTP, College Summit, Project Lead the Way, and Stand for Children, the Mind Trust has dramatically improved the quality of education in Indianapolis and the wider Midwest. Its charter-school incubator offers $1 million grants to encourage the creation of excellent new schools, fostering both local startups and branches of top national networks like Rocketship, KIPP, and Phalen. Grants provided by the organization’s Education Entrepreneurship Fellowship are drawing innovators into the field and creating new options for regional families. The Mind Trust’s report “Creating Opportunity Schools” helped define the conversation not only regionally but also nationally on how to overhaul a creaky urban school district.

A spinoff of the group, CEE-Trust, is orchestrating similar efforts in other cities, using funding from the Carnegie Corporation and Joyce Foundation to link about three dozen inventive local foundations and nonprofits from across the country. Other major supporters of The Mind Trust include the Eli Lilly and Company, Walton Family, Gates, OneAmerica, and Richard Fairbanks foundations, and the Lilly Endowment. Individual donors and local businesses also helped the organization raise more than $35 million in its first several years, which in turn allowed the organization to aid 100,000 Indianapolis children.

As school reformers surveyed the wreckage after Hurricane Katrina closed New Orleans schools for six months, they resolved to grab the opportunity to completely remake that city’s disastrously failed education system. It soon became clear that a local nonprofit was needed to serve as an honest broker and advocate for dramatic change. With the backing of donors, an energetic organization called New Schools for New Orleans was created to serve as a kind of combined guide dog/watch dog.

Eight years later, the main New Orleans school district became the first in America to fully close down its conventional schools and replace them with a system of independent public charter schools from which parents can choose (see 2014 entry). New Schools for New Orleans helped make this possible by contributing to the city’s still-unfolding schools revolution in three crucial ways: It helped establish or expand more than a quarter of the charter schools that now educate the city’s children (students in NSNO-backed schools are now improving their growth scores at about twice the rate of students in other local schools). Second, NSNO has led the charge in improving the training of teachers and principals, supporting teaching fellowships and bringing in top national trainers like Match Teacher Coaching, the Relay Graduate School of Education, the Center for Transformative Teacher Training, and others. Third, NSNO has served as a fair but tough reviewer of school results, and a leader in assisting schools in raising their standards every year.

The results have been dramatic. New Orleans has closed about three quarters of the achievement lag by which it long trailed the rest of its state. In the process, NSNO has become a much-prized authority on school reform, and is now consulted regularly by educators from other cities attempting to turn around their own schools. In all of this NSNO has relied powerfully on philanthropic support, including $40 million of multiyear grants from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and support from numerous other donors like the Robertson Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and Gates Foundation.

Walter Teagle, longtime president of Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil) graduated from Cornell University in 1899, served as a Cornell trustee for 30 years, and was an energetic advocate for “liberal education.” He believed that lessons learned from the “great books” could give college students the perspective and confidence to succeed in life by thinking their way through changing conditions. His Teagle Foundation, established in 1944, has had a long history of supporting excellent traditional liberal-arts programming at fine universities. The foundation has long taken a special interest in its home community of New York City, and in young people who are the first in their family to attempt college. Combining these interests, the foundation launched in 2005 its College-Community Connections program to help New York-area low-income and minority students grasp the advantages of high-quality liberal education. As its name implies, the program recruits community groups that have experience and credibility with disadvantaged high school students and links them to area colleges like Columbia, Cornell, Fordham, Drew, NYU, Skidmore, and Manhattan College that are willing to conduct special classes, often during the summer, to hook these young people on challenging reading and big-picture thinking.

For instance, one of Teagle’s CCC grantees (with co-funding from the Jack Miller Center—see 2007 entry on teaching history) is a “Freedom and Citizenship” seminar that brings several dozen bright but poor high-school juniors or seniors to Columbia for an intensive three-week session where they read and discuss Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and other greats. Rather than offering skill training or test prep, as many college-track programs for underrepresented kids do, the CCC efforts try to fascinate students with the life of the mind so they will not only get into college but prosper and graduate once there. Participants also get paired with a Columbia undergraduate who mentors them during the subsequent year as they prepare to enter college.

Teagle has devoted many millions of dollars to this College-Community Connections effort. After interviewing several hundred students who participated in the program, professional evaluators described it as “highly effective” at helping disadvantaged high school students “learn about the academic rigors of college coursework and the social responsibilities of being a college student.” With donor support, similar undertakings are operated by Scripps College for low-income girls in Los Angeles, by the University of Chicago for students from the Chicago public schools, and other colleges.

In 2005, as it was becoming clear that charter schools could produce powerful results among previously ill-served students, funders turned to the imperative of increasing the number of these effective schools as fast as possible, without watering down quality. To kickstart replication of high-performing schools, John Walton and Don Fisher each committed $5 million of startup funding to create the Charter School Growth Fund. The fund would collect capital from large education donors, then channel the pooled money to carefully chosen operators who had demonstrated clearly that they could create effective schools.

Once the fund was in existence, more than 375 school operators applied for grants, but only 40 were selected, and large, multiyear investments of several million dollars were given to each. The beneficiaries included schools like Yes Prep, IDEA, Denver School of Science and Technology, and Rocketship, which have since grown into nationally renowned chains. Generally the fund invests in charter operators that are the top performers in their city. The money is not to be used to cover operating costs, but is specifically directed to gearing up management so the network has the capacity to open more schools. The fund offers expert business coaching as well as funding.

In addition to Walton’s eventual $25 million and $17 million from Fisher, donors to the fund’s first investment round of $87 million included the Bradley Foundation ($14 million) and other foundations like Kern, Dell, Gates, Broad, Casey, Anschutz, and Robertson. In 2010 the CSGF launched a fresh round of fundraising and collected more than $160 million from the likes of Reed Hastings and the Walton, Arnold, and Hyde family foundations. About the same time, the group began forming specialized sub-funds that focus on particular problems (its Facility Fund helps schools acquire buildings) or regions (special New Orleans, Tennessee, and Florida investment pools). By 2015 the Charter School Growth Fund had committed around a quarter of a billion dollars of philanthropic money to support the creation of a third of a million new seats for low-income and minority children around the country.

In the mid-2000s, state-level associations created to serve, improve, and defend charter schools were beginning to become very savvy and active in many parts of the country. A group of donors decide it would be helpful to school reformers, politicians, and families if a national association were created to serve as a clearinghouse of authoritative information, source of institutional guidance and assistance, and public spokesman. The Fisher, Walton, Annie Casey, and Gates foundations joined together to launch the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “If we don’t have a major national program, the work of funders and grantees will be whittled away,” explained donor Don Fisher.“Most Americans will never even be clear what a charter school is.”

Today the NAPCS is a highly effective organization. It publishes the definitive statistics on charter-school numbers, policies, and performance. It maintains an up-to-date database of all of the charter-school laws now in effect. It researches the field and publishes regular reports on technical and operational topics. It holds national conferences. The alliance represents the interests of charter schools in the nation’s capital, in the states, in courtrooms, and in the media. It does these things with annual funding from about ten large philanthropies.

A criticism of the many schools of education in the United States is that they are much too wedded to the prevailing systems that have consistently underperformed. So it was a departure when the University of Arkansas established a new Department of Education Reform in 2005. The department’s creation was made possible by a $10 million gift from the Windgate Charitable Foundation that was then matched by money from the Walton Family Foundation. These contributions prompted the university to kick in money of its own. Among the largest received by any school of education, these gifts were primarily used to endow six professorships, with additional funds set aside to fund future research and establish ten doctoral fellowships.

Throughout American history, one of the central challenges facing reformers has been overcoming the political interest groups that dominate public education. The new department at the University of Arkansas was organized with the aim of avoiding establishment pressure and conventional wisdom. In addition to seeking near-term improvements, the department is charged with forming independent education scholars and leaders for the future. In its early years, it has sponsored pioneering research into school choice, and reports on the performance of specific reforms throughout the United States, while touting international models for school excellence and diversity, and encouraging fresh thinking in areas like teacher assessment and accountability.

  • Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas,

James Simons is a walking advertisement for the power of math. The former chairman of the mathematics department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook got an itch to try mathematical approaches to investing, founded a firm that helped usher in the new field of quantitative money management, and ended up with a $12 billion personal fortune. Simons has since given away more than a billion dollars, using some of that to establish a program to chip away at the gross shortage of teachers qualified to instruct students in higher-level math and science.

Math for America pays math and science majors who elect to become teachers an additional stipend beyond their scaled school-district salary. This stipend can total up to $100,000 spread over five years. The fellowship also provides opportunities for professional development, chances to network with other math teachers, and scholarships for candidates while they are students. The program began and remains largest in New York City, but operates now in seven locations, supporting more than a thousand teachers, and it is expanding.

The $1 million Broad Prize, the largest K-12 education award in the country, was created in 2002 to reward urban public-school districts that “demonstrate the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among low-income students and students of color.” It is donated by the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation. In 2012 the foundation established a parallel $250,000 prize to recognize the charter-school operator that best meets similar criteria. The ultimate aim of both prizes is to highlight school systems that others across the country might be able to learn from.

The charter-school prize offers many chart-topping candidates worth recognizing. The school-district prize, however, lost its luster when it was awarded to Houston city schools for a second time in 2013, without their possessing an especially proud achievement record, and when only two districts were named as finalists in 2014 (instead of the usual four to five), because the prize board found so few impressive records. The lack of impressive empirical results from conventional urban public school districts caused the foundation to “pause” that prize in 2015. Meanwhile, the charter-school prize continues to spotlight many highly effective operators.

Seeing that “factory-style” public schools were having poor results, teacher Dan Scoggin went looking for an alternative. He became convinced that an emphasis on character development, linked to a demanding great-books curriculum, would help students feel their human value and potential, which would translate into academic achievement. Scoggin became the leader of a group of Phoenix, Arizona, residents who were determined to bring better schools to their city. Their goals were bigger than just improved test scores. They wanted to produce students capable of appreciating “the true, the good, and the beautiful”—while also being 100 percent qualified to attend college and otherwise achieve and contribute.

Taking advantage of Arizona’s embrace of the charter-school concept, and a bevy of generous local donors, Scoggin’s team founded the first Great Hearts Academy in 2002 as a free public charter school located in the Phoenix suburbs. Great Hearts employs teachers who are trained specifically in their academic field, rather than graduates of teacher schools. They require their pupils to read primary sources rather than textbooks, and they use Socratic-style discussion rather than lectures, and expect every child, not just the natural scholars, to participate and learn. All of which is easier said than done, of course, particularly given that charter schools are allotted about one-quarter less funding per student than conventional public schools.

Local donors large and small—like the Quayle family, fourth-generation Arizonans who gave $1.5 million in 2012—stepped forward to make Great Hearts possible. Philanthropy also covered crucial costs for expanding the Great Hearts model after it had demonstrated its power (95 percent of students, even those from difficult inner-city neighborhoods, go straight to four-year colleges). By 2015 there were 22 Great Hearts Academies in the Phoenix area, with several more in the works. The first academy outside of Arizona opened in San Antonio in 2014 and a dozen more schools located across Texas began the process of opening in the following years. Even with all of this growth, thousands of students remain on waiting lists for these schools. The network is planning additional expansion with major philanthropic support.

“We need to change public education from a tired, government monopoly to a high-performing public enterprise. To do that you need better people in management and governance,” argues major education donor Eli Broad. With that goal in mind, Broad created two leadership-training programs: The Broad Residency in Urban Education, and the Broad Superintendents Academy. The residency picks 45 to 50 professionals with strong records outside education—often in finance, business, or law—and puts them through an intensive two-year program which prepares them to apply their high-level management and problem-solving skills to running schools. Most are placed in large public-school headquarters, the central offices of top charter-school networks, or city, state, or federal education departments. The Broad Academy is another highly selective leadership program that grooms each class of 10-15 individuals, over an 18-month period, to become superintendents of schools. These two efforts have launched a surge of talented reform-oriented leaders into public education. Among their several hundred alumni (about 90 percent of whom remain in education) are leaders like Chris Cerf (who became commissioner of education for the state of New Jersey), Chris Barbic (superintendent of Tennessee’s statewide Achievement School District), John Deasy (Los Angeles United School District superintendent), Charlotte superintendent Heath Morrison, New Schools for New Orleans former CEO Neerav Kingsland, and Alex Hernandez of the Charter School Growth Fund.

In 2001, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that for $100 million his university could put every one of its courses online—reading lists, lecture videos, lecture notes, homework sets and solutions, exams. Online users would have no access to MIT faculty, and would not get academic credit, but the entire bounty of one of the world’s great universities—more than 1,800 courses—would be available at no charge to the world’s huddled intellects yearning to breathe free. The Mellon Foundation invited the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to be their partner in paying for this gift to learners, and each organization put up an initial $5.5 million to launch a pilot program that put the first 50 MIT courses on line in 2002. By 2007 they had the entire MIT curriculum available on the Internet—every course in 33 different academic disciplines.

By 2014, several hundred additional new courses had been added, and more than 152 million individuals had sampled what MIT was calling its “OpenCourseWare.” In addition, a new program allowed online students to pay a small fee and take exams that would qualify them for a special “MITx” credential showing they had successfully completed the course. As other universities like Johns Hopkins, Rice, Yale, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon approached donors for help putting their offerings on line, additional foundations like MacArthur and Gates, plus numerous individual donors, as well as companies like Dow and Lockheed Martin, began to make grants to pay for the $10,000-$15,000 it costs to put an average course online.

In its first dozen years leading this philanthropic effort, the Hewlett Foundation alone spent approximately $150 million. It also provided invaluable leadership toward opening up the previously closed world of academe—for instance, overcoming faculty resistance against sharing of their “intellectual property” by building up the Creative Commons process for licensing fair uses of curricula and lectures. The Hewlett Foundation also provided funds to create the Open Education Consortium. This got more than 250 universities involved in putting free instructional material on the Internet, totaling about 15,000 courses in 20 different languages as of 2014.

In 2001, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of chip manufacturer Intel and author of many scientific papers and patents on semiconductors, gave the California Institute of Technology a massive $600 million gift to keep that institution, which he described as a “national treasure,” on the forefront of science and tech research. The college announced that a portion of the gift would go to its endowment, but most would be spent for research projects and the hiring of new investigators. It became the largest donation ever to a single college or university. Moore has made many other gifts to Caltech as well, most recently $100 million in 2015 for a fund that will eventually provide fellowships for every Caltech graduate student. He also served on the university’s board of trustees for decades.

In 2001, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation made an historic announcement that it would be donating $400 million to Stanford University to reinforce its academic programs. This was just the most dramatic in a long series of grants from the Hewlett and Packard families, whose patriarchs had built one of the pioneering computer companies after graduating from Stanford. Way back in 1952, a brand-new engineering building was opened on the Palo Alto campus thanks to gifts from Bill Hewlett and David Packard. The men were the lead donors in nearly all of the capital campaigns the university conducted during their adult lifetimes. They funded faculty, fellowships, buildings, and scholarships. They drew in many other donors, particularly across Silicon Valley, who wanted to follow their philanthropic example.

Even before the 2001 gift announcement, the Hewlett and Packard families and their foundations had donated close to $400 million to Stanford, providing crucial support that in particular pushed the university’s computer, engineering, and science programs to international preeminence. As one college official stated, “only Leland and Jane Stanford have played a larger role in Stanford’s success.” More recently, Nike founder Phil Knight also became a major Stanford donor—with gifts of $105 million in 2006, and $400 million in 2016.

Jack Kent Cooke dropped out of high school during the Depression to help support his family, and went on to great success as an entrepreneur and sports-team owner. His will provided that when his Washington Redskins NFL team and other assets were sold after his death, the assets would go to a foundation dedicated to helping exceptionally promising students from low-income families. Since 2000, his foundation has built up one of the country’s richest set of scholarships and supports for high-achieving poor children, to whom it has so far distributed a quarter of a billion dollars in a combination of scholarships and services.

The Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholars program identifies low-income eighth-graders with high academic potential, plus demonstrated persistence, leadership, and good citizenship, then provides them with four years of one-on-one help from an educational adviser who guides and supports the student (via home and school visits, phone, and e-mail) in selecting a high school, picking challenging classes, taking summer and online enrichment courses, excelling at extracurriculars, and preparing for and applying to college. Each of the roughly 250 students in the program at any given time gets an Individual Learning Plan, and stipends as needed to succeed. In turn, scholarship recipients are required to maintain all A or B grades, to work hard, and exhibit good character.

Complementing this program covering the high-school years are the Jack Kent Cooke college scholarships. These provide poor but top-achieving students who want to attend America’s very best colleges a four-year scholarship of up to $40,000 per year, along with personal advising. Around 150 undergraduates are benefitting from the program in any given year.

The JKC transfer scholarship is an excellent and unusual program for top community-college students. It offers the same $40,000 annual stipend to those who have done well in a two-year college and now want to transfer to a selective four-year institution. It is offered to 55 new winners every year.

The Cooke graduate scholarships have provided more than $70 million for graduate education of students who have succeeded in the two previous programs.

And the remarkable Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist awards every year give $10,000 scholarships to 20 outstanding young musicians age eight to 18 so they can pursue their music at the very highest level. Awardees also get an opportunity to perform on the national radio program “From the Top.” Many poor youngsters have in this way been propelled into high-level musical careers.

As a supplement to this panoply of scholarships, the Cooke foundation also makes annual grants to nonprofits that expand educational opportunities to their target high-achievement/low-income population. And in 2015, the foundation created the Cooke Prize, an annual $1 million award to an elite college university with a great record of turning low-income students into top scholars.

After selling his company Netscape, Jim Barksdale and his wife, Sally, gave the largest gift ever to improve literacy, $100 million, to start the Barksdale Reading Institute at the University of Mississippi in 2000. The institute works with the Mississippi Department of Education, the state’s public schools, and its universities with the aim of improving the teaching of reading and increasing the literacy levels of Mississippi student in grades K-3. Finding cost-efficient progress elusive within the existing school system, the FRI in 2010 added a “principal project” which places new highly qualified principals in chronically underperforming schools, giving them wide authority over personnel, curriculum, discipline, grading, etc., and a mandate to improve the teaching of reading with special teaching and testing. Barksdale's latest gift, creating the Mississippi Principal Corps at the University of Mississippi, builds upon this approach by producing an annual cohort of specially trained reform-minded principals. A 2012 gift by the Robert Hearin Support Foundation reinforced the program.

For years, venture capitalist B. J. Cassin gave scholarships to inner-city kids; then he wanted to help on a wider scale. In 2000 he and his daughter visited Chicago to investigate a new kind of Catholic high school. The Cristo Rey Jesuit High School not only provided low-income children with an excellent, values-rich education, it also offered a new financial model, after the loss of low-cost teaching by nuns wrecked the finances of most inner-city Catholic schools. Cristo Rey designed into its high school a corporate work-study program that has all students working entry-level jobs at firms like JPMorgan Chase or Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Four students share one full-time position. Each student works one day per week, then takes a full schedule of classes compressed into the remaining four days. The students thus acquire business familiarity, skills, and mettle that give them a foot in the door to white-collar professions. And the firms pay the school for the work received—which covers two thirds of the school’s expenses.

Cassin donated $12 million to expand Cristo Rey into a network of schools applying this shared work/learn structure. He also dedicated a large chunk of time to chairing the network. Each potential school first undergoes a nine- to 12-month feasibility survey, and those that pass are then given a half-million-dollar seed grant over three years, with additional start-up costs covered by local donors. In 2003, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was so impressed it began multimillion-dollar contributions to seed the creation of even more schools. Donors in particular cities, like David Weekley and others in Houston, have also paid for new schools.

A Gates official noted early on that the work-study component is especially valuable for Cristo Rey’s low-income students. Their “sense of confidence and efficacy” is striking, he observed. “They appreciate being treated as adults and given real responsibility. They also recognize they’re gaining valuable work experience and learning a lot of things they wouldn’t learn at school.”

By 2017, 9,000 students attended the Cristo Rey network’s 30 schools in 21 states plus D.C. They worked in 2,525 different partner businesses. Among the network’s graduates from the past five years, 90 percent have enrolled in college and persisted into their sophomore year—twice the rate of peers from the same socioeconomic background. 

For education-reform advocates, the KIPP Schools are among the greatest successes of recent history. Started in 1994 by David Levin and Mike Feinberg, two teachers fresh from Teach For America stints, KIPP dramatically improves educational opportunities in urban areas by creating high-performing “no-excuses” charter schools in the most neglected neighborhoods of their cities. The schools rely on many innovations: carefully selected principals, a particular style of bright and dedicated teacher, more school time (including Saturday classes and a longer school year), strict rules on behavior, a culture of high expectations, contracts signed by students, parents, and teachers. Despite remarkable student results and growing reputation, in 2000 the KIPP portfolio consisted of just one school in Houston and another in the Bronx. That’s when Don Fisher came along. The founder and longtime CEO of the Gap, Fisher closely examined KIPP’s successes and was sufficiently impressed to give Levin and Feinberg $15 million, plus lots of intense guidance on organization and management, to take their model nationwide. An additional $20 million changed hands over the following four years. Fisher chaired the KIPP board for years.

Fisher and the KIPP leaders eventually decided that the training of principals would be the best way to accelerate the creation of excellent new schools. Today KIPP runs five renowned programs for building leadership skills in principals, assistant principals, and other leaders, plus a teacher leader program that prepares them to be grade-level head, department chair, or Saturday-school coordinator. The top two donor-endowed efforts are the Fisher Fellowship (which prepares individuals to open new KIPP schools) and the Miles Family Fellowship (which instructs leaders while they serve in existing KIPP schools).

KIPP’s combination of intense staff training, high and uncompromising standards, and decentralized operational control allowed the network to mushroom from just two schools to a total of 183 campuses in 20 states plus D.C. by 2015, serving nearly 70,000 children. Most remarkably, it expanded in this way with no diminution of academic quality or student-performance results. Though the vast majority of its students are poor and from minority backgrounds, KIPP produces a 93 percent graduation rate and 83 percent college placement. Thousands of donors now support the KIPP schools, including dozens that make seven-figure annual donations—like the Walton, Arnold, Broad, Dell, Robertson, and Wallace foundations, and individuals like Thomas and Susan Dunn, Reed Hastings and Patty Quillin, and Arthur Rock and Toni Rembe in recent years.

But no philanthropists have contributed more to the success of KIPP than the Fisher family, which has now given about $80 million (and counting) to enhance and expand the network. And KIPP is just one of several places where Don Fisher germinated spectacular educational reforms; he was also a pioneer funder of Teach For America, the New Teacher Project, the Charter School Growth Fund, the California Charter Schools Association, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, StudentsFirst, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and other landmark organizations. As his biography in the Philanthropy Hall of Fame notes, Don Fisher “may have been the most consequential” funder of U.S. education reform in the modern era. “Fisher was among the very first to find and fund almost all of the most promising ideas and programs of the last 50 years. He seemed to have an uncanny knack for discovering effective people, which was coupled to a fierce independent streak that encouraged him to back them long before anyone else.”

In 2000, a group of students at the Harvard Business School became finalists in its annual business-plan contest with a proposal for a new organization to train principals. Later that same year, New Leaders for New Schools was launched as an operating nonprofit, and by 2015 the program will have offered high-quality training to 2,000 new principals. It recently set a goal to also train 1,000 sitting principals every year. The program is expensive—six figures per candidate per year. Foundation, individual, and corporate donors sustain the group with approximately $20 million of annual support, with recent top donors including the Boeing Company, the Roberts, Robertson, Gates, Schwab, and Hyde foundations, the Carnegie Corporation, and more than a hundred other givers. The program is now known simply as New Leaders.

Just before the turn of the millennium, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put into operation a major college scholarship program for minority students, with an initial grant of a cool billion dollars that was later increased to $1.6 billion. Every year, the Millennium Scholars program selects 1,000 new African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native-American college prospects and offers them good-through-graduation scholarships (set at various levels to cover their need). These can be used at any college the student chooses. The program particularly aims to encourage minorities to enter scientific fields like computer science, math, public health, and engineering (where they are underrepresented), and any Millennium Scholar in good standing who finishes an undergraduate degree and wants to continue on to grad school in one of these technical fields will also have his or her graduate education paid for by Gates. In addition to financial aid, the program offers leadership development, mentoring, internships, and other resources to help students succeed—which collectively have yielded a rate of college graduation within six years of nearly 90 percent, more than double the average for all African Americans. Since its establishment, the Gates Millennium Scholars program has propelled more than 16,000 young Americans through their educational careers, and 28 percent have gone on to graduate school, half of them in the technical fields that Gates has particularly targeted.

Given his roaring success in business and private equity it was no surprise when Stephen Adams offered a large financial contribution to Yale University. What did come as a surprise was the particular object of his support: the Yale School of Music. For most of his life, Adams possessed no special musical ability and very little interest in the field. But at the age of 55 he began playing piano, quite seriously, and quickly developed a love of the classical repertoire. On the occasion of his 40-year reunion, Adams decided to contribute $10 million to his alma mater’s music program. And he wasn’t done. As his knowledge of and passion for music continued to growth, so did his giving. In 2005 he gave an additional $100 million—which allowed the School of Music to cover the entire tuition cost of all of its students thenceforth.

In a field that matches extraordinary professional demands with very modest financial rewards, tuition-free music training was a breakthrough. The gift was initially given anonymously. “My wife and I are Christians and the Bible speaks of giving in secret,” Adams said later, describing himself as devout. His benefaction only became known in 2008 when he revealed it offhandedly in an interview in hope of encouraging fellow members of the class of ’59 to give generously for their 50-year reunion. The Adams Family Foundation has also made many other grants to support music education across the country, including substantial gifts to Westmont College.

Multi-year foundation funding totaling $1.25 million allowed the creation of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at the University of Rochester in 1999. It was guided by one of the country’s leading education economists, Eric Hanushek, and a distinguished advisory board. Later moved to Stanford University, it has become a leading source of reliable hard data on K-12 student performance and the cumulative effects of various school reforms. In particular, its studies of charter schools around the country quickly became the authoritative summaries of the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s fastest-growing alternatives to conventional public schools. An initial 2009 study spanning 16 states was followed by a 2013 26-state update (drawing on the records of a million and a half charter-school students), and by profiles of many particular regions. By providing a whole new level of detail and sophistication to understanding of the effects of charter schools, the CREDO studies have become the baseline evidence on charter results. Continuing updates on the mushrooming sector are planned, with recent support from the Walton Family Foundation and Pearson Learning Systems.

Raised in an orphanage run by nuns, Tom Monaghan had a deep appreciation for Catholic education. After the 1997 sale of his stake in Domino’s Pizza, the firm he founded and grew into a multibillion-dollar business, Monaghan turned his attention to philanthropy. He quickly zeroed in on the difficulty Catholic families told him they had in finding colleges that were both high-quality and faithful. And so in 1998 he founded Ave Maria College. Two years later he created the Ave Maria School of Law as a sister institution. Thanks to more than $500 million donated by Monaghan the schools grew quickly, and became permanently located in southwest Florida, with a current enrollment of 1,300 students. Broad philanthropic support is developing, with more than 10 patrons having given at least a million dollars, and over 100 making six-figure donations.

In the late 1990s, some Silicon Valley investors impressed by the ability of imaginative entrepreneurs to solve knotty problems in technology decided to see if they could apply some of that same creativity to reforming education. They set up a nonprofit organization modeled on venture-capital investing. Like a venture-capital firm it would pool money from a number of individuals and organizations, do careful research to find the most promising leaders in the target field (in this case, school improvement), then back these leaders with substantial sums of money. Instead of seeking a financial return, however, they would look for social impact.

In its first 15 years the NewSchools Venture Fund raised about $250 million from donors, then channeled that money into more than 100 nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Some of these were new schools: charter operators like Aspire, Alliance, Brooke, Match, North Star, Rocketship, and others. But the group also invests in social inventors who are creating new curricula, computer applications, or educational services. NSVF has built up three dozen education-technology firms whose products have reached 15 million students.

Online instructor Khan Academy, the school-reform advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools, D.C.’s superb authorizing board for charter schools, the GreatSchools Web rankings, principal-training organization New Leaders, the Relay Graduate School of Education, and many other reform groups have received money from the NewSchools Venture Fund. More than 7,500 teachers have been trained by recipients of its money. NSVF has special regional arms to support charter schools and other improvements in Boston, Oakland, and D.C. The latest roster of donors to the fund lists 39 individual givers, 45 foundations or donor-advised funds, and six companies or corporate foundations.

Ted Forstmann and John Walton were two of the country’s most successful businessmen, but they’d never met until they donated $6 million to the Washington Scholarship Fund. That fund was set up to help low-income students in Washington, D.C., attend private and religious schools. (See 1997 entry on list of Public-Policy Achievements.)

After observing the powerful desire among parents in the nation’s capital for educational opportunities beyond those offered in the public schools, the men decided to start a similar organization offering scholarships across the country. Each man contributed $50 million. The resulting fund would allow 40,000 children to attend better schools. The scholarships generally paid only partial tuition, though, so recipient families would have to make sacrifices to find the rest of the school fees.

When the Children’s Scholarship Fund was announced, an astonishing 1.25 million applications were submitted. This roaring demand for educational opportunity prompted the men to expand CSF far beyond its initial scope. The organization set up local affiliates in major cities and secured long-term financial support from a host of fellow philanthropists.

From 1998 to 2014, the Children’s Scholarship Fund awarded $677 million in private scholarships to about 160,000 low-income children, most of them from minority backgrounds. In addition to transforming those lives, the fund revealed the depth of hunger among parents across the country for alternatives to conventional public schools. This fed other elements of school reform.

The first BASIS school was opened in 1998 with the intention of creating an open-admission public school that could produce results as good as the world’s top-scoring schools in places like Shanghai, Finland, and South Korea. Founders Michael and Olga Block succeeded, then went on to build a string of similar schools using philanthropic funds. In each of them, BASIS administers a rigorous, Advanced Placement curriculum to all students, across the board. “We have been severely underestimating all kids,” argue the Blocks. Science and math are a particular focus of BASIS schools—all students complete Algebra I by the end of their seventh‐grade year, and in grade six students begin taking biology, chemistry, and physics as separate subjects. Also beginning in sixth grade, students are required to pass comprehensive exams in all core subjects in order to be promoted to the next grade.

This mirrors the demanding course schedule of many top‐performing European and Asian schools. To make it work, BASIS negotiates an initial salary individually with each teacher, and offers performance‐based financial incentives. Teachers of A.P. courses, for instance, earn an additional $100 for every student who makes a grade of four on the A.P. exam, and an additional $200 for every student who earns a five (the top score). Rather than traditional sick days, BASIS gives teachers a “wellness bonus” of $1,500. They lose a predetermined amount of that for each sick day taken.

The results of all of this are outstanding. The average BASIS student takes ten AP exams. Though only about one percent of the 1.5 million high‐school seniors who take the PSAT test every year are selected as National Merit Scholar Finalists, more than 25 percent of all BASIS seniors earned that high achievement in 2012. International tests like the PISA exam show that BASIS students are competitive with the very best scholars anywhere in the world.

With support from donors like Craig Barrett, former CEO of the Intel Corporation, and his wife, Barbara, the network of BASIS charter schools is now undergoing expansion. It operates 18 schools as of 2015, with more in the works. In addition to its public charter schools the organization is experimenting with moderate-cost, high-performance private schools, opening prototypes in low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the D.C. suburbs, and San Jose.

Character education has been a centerpiece of the training provided by America’s military academies right from their foundings. The honor codes and leadership lessons expounded at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs have influenced many other schools as well. In recent decades, private donors have become increasingly active in reinforcing and enriching these offerings, with the intention of bolstering character strengths not only in the military but also in business and other sectors of civilian life.

In 1998, a $4 million endowment from Ross Perot, plus major support from the William E. Simon, John Olin, and Lynde and Harry Bradley foundations helped create at West Point the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. The center leads all cadets through the academy’s capstone course on officership, featuring repeated “dilemma-based exercises” that teach future military leaders how to balance high moral, legal, and practical responsibilities. The center also holds conferences where cadets, plus hundreds of students brought in from other colleges and universities, grapple with details of ethical decision-making, character development, and the maintenance of honor codes.

In 2011, philanthropist and former aircraft-manufacturing CEO Sandy McDonnell donated $5 million to the U.S. Air Force Academy to create its own Center for Character and Leadership Development. “The military academies are far ahead of almost all of the other universities in the emphasis they place on character-building,” explained McDonnell at the time of his gift. “I hope universities all across the nation will emulate their programs for character development.” The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and Naval Academy graduate/NBA star/philanthropist David Robinson helped create similar programs at Annapolis. Observing that “leadership is one of the scarcest resources in the world,” former Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald has given money to West Point for national conferences in character-building that train students from other colleges in methods that have produced good results at the U.S. Military Academy.

Starting with the premise that nothing has a greater influence on a school’s success than the quality of teachers, The New Teacher Project (later known simply as TNTP) was founded in 1997 by Michelle Rhee, and then run by her for ten years until she became school chief in the District of Columbia. The organization’s original mission was to help large urban school districts recruit, train, and hire new teachers who could get classroom results, particularly in hard-to-fill specialties like special-ed and math. The group still does this, through its TNTP Academy, which has so far recommended to districts nearly 3,000 teacher hires. Over the years, TNTP has increasingly focused on drawing into the teaching profession talented candidates from nonconventional backgrounds.

In 2000, TNTP established its own teaching-fellows program to groom accomplished professionals and recent college graduates who aren’t certified as educators but have subject knowledge and talents to help high-need students. The program is extremely selective—only 8 percent of all applicants make it to the classroom. Recruits are particularly steered into the hardest-to-fill jobs: about 40 percent of TNTP Teaching Fellows go into special education, 15 percent teach science, 12 percent teach math, and 10 percent work in bilingual education. More than 32,000 unusually effective teachers have come out of the fellows program since its creation. With the growth and dramatic success of charter schools over the last decade, increasing numbers of TNTP recruits have been placed in charters.

Both the charters schools and the conventional districts that TNTP works with pay the group a fee for providing them with a highly qualified teacher, and this revenue stream covers about 70 percent of the group’s expenses. The remainder of its annual budget comes from philanthropists such as the Carnegie Corporation and the Gates, Walton, and Schwab foundations. One of the things that donor money has made possible is TNTP’s increasing role in analyzing systemic problems in public schooling and prescribing solutions. In a series of influential reports over the last few years, like 2009’s “The Widget Effect,” TNTP has dispensed advice on evaluating, compensating, and keeping or replacing teachers.

Franklin Olin didn’t finish school, but he was mechanically gifted and sufficiently studious that at age 22 he passed the entrance exam for Cornell University, where he studied engineering. He proved to be a natural entrepreneur, and when Olin died in 1951 his bequest made his foundation one of the largest in the nation. For years, the F. W. Olin Foundation supported science and engineering projects; then the trustees decided to create a brand-new college to offer students Franklin Olin-style twists on engineering. The Olin College of Engineering, chartered in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1997, particularly aimed to make its engineers more creative, more entrepreneurial, more interdisciplinary and comfortable working in teams, and equipped with better communications skills. All of these elements were lacking in traditional engineering training.

The foundation committed $200 million to start the fledgling school—at the time a record in higher education. It located Olin adjacent to Babson College, one of the nation’s top-ranked entrepreneurship schools, and 25 percent of Olin students are simultaneously taking classes at Babson or nearby Wellesley College. To help produce a culture of change and innovation, faculty members are untenured. Only 16 percent of applying students are admitted, and 41 percent of alums go on to advanced study. Olin graduates soon ranked among the top winners of National Science Foundation graduate fellowships and Fulbright scholarships.

When it closed its doors for good in 2005, the Olin Foundation transferred the balance of its endowment—over $250 million—to the college. With a total of $460 million in gifts from its founder, the college gives all students a half-tuition scholarship. Olin’s fresh approach to engineering has inspired wide interest and imitation. More than 50 universities send observers to the campus annually. Nine are now revising their programs along Olin’s lines. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, all engineering freshmen have begun following a program that borrows from Olin courses.

Could these changes have been triggered without creating a new privately funded model college? The college’s founding president, Richard Miller, is doubtful. “The National Science Foundation spent around $100 million over 10 years to provoke this kind of change on large campuses in the 1990s. After five or six years, they ended it—concluding that its penetration into universities was disappointing…. I view Mr. Olin as a great example…. He was an entrepreneur, he was educated as an engineer, and he was motivated to do things to create opportunities for others. We are doing all that we know how to do to inspire the graduates of Olin to follow along that path.”

The Charter Schools Development Corporation was founded in 1997 as a philanthropically funded nonprofit with a sole focus on addressing one of the most pressing obstacles to charter-school creation today: the difficulty of financing a campus. By offering direct loans, helping arrange commercial and public financing, providing loan guarantees, and other methods, the group has financed hundreds of school facilities, serving tens of thousands of students, in 26 states. The Daniels Fund and Kauffman Foundation, other donors, and private lenders have supplied millions of dollars of seed capital, much of which is recycled back to the CSDC in loan repayments, which then become available for offering to the next generation of schools. This successful model of paying for the buildings needed by new charter schools is now also employed energetically by other nonprofits in different regions of the U.S., like Civic Builders (which works in the New York area with support from the NewSchools Venture Fund, the Gates, Dell, and Casey foundations, and others), Pacific Charter School Development (supported by some of the same donors, as well as the Ahmanson, Broad, Walton, Weingart, and Parsons foundations), and Building Hope (which backs facilities in the D.C. area). The Charter School Growth Fund also operates a Revolving Facilities Loan pool.

A recent addition to the field combines nonprofit and for-profit operations. Charter-school backer Andre Agassi founded a venture in 2011 to build campuses for charter schools around the country. The Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund combined money from Agassi and Turner Capital with funds from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and investments from banks. They are now in the process of building half a billion dollars of charter-school infrastructure over a several-year period, creating new slots for 35,000 students on 45 campuses. The fund uses its own money and design/build expertise to erect structures, playgrounds, etc. as specified by the charter partner, delivering turn-key properties that the school then pays off by pledging up to 20 percent of its per-pupil reimbursements once it is fully up and operating.

In 1986, a public-school teacher in upstate New York created a special high-school curriculum to encourage more of his students to study engineering. Within a few years he was not only attracting lots of kids to his hands-on classes in digital electronics and other subjects, but leaving them with valuable skills important in technology occupations. Within a few years he convinced the nearby Charitable Leadership Foundation to finance an expansion of the program. Thus was Project Lead the Way born with donated funds in 1997 across a network of 12 New York school districts. The next year it went national, as two New Hampshire schools joined. The first major corporate sponsor signed on in 1999, when Autodesk began to provide students with its world-leading computer-assisted-design software.

The program—which combines college-level technology concepts with exciting project-based learning (building a solar-powered car, creating fighting robots, using laser machine tools and print-jet manufacturing)—proceeded to grow explosively. By 2008, PLTW was being used in schools in all 50 states. The Kern Family Foundation gave the organization a $10 million gift in 2009 to allow further major expansion. (Engineering is a deep interest of the Kern family. They, for instance, gave $15 million to build a new home for the Marquette University College of Engineering.) The Kerns donated more than $26 million to Project Lead the Way over the next several years. In 2013, Chevron made a $6 million donation. The program’s many other donors include the Kauffman, Knight, and Conrad foundations, and companies like Lockheed Martin.

By 2015, more than 8,000 schools (now not only high schools but also middle and elementary campuses) were using PLTW curricula with 900,000 students. Project Lead the Way has become the nation’s most successful provider of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instruction for K-12 students.

In addition to the imaginative curriculum and the project-based orientation, highly competent teachers are the key to the program’s success. Teachers who want to bring PLTW to their school must take an online skills assessment and then participate in weeks-long summer training to fill in their weak spots and hone their general technical understanding and teaching skills. The Rochester Institute of Technology has provided intensive teacher instruction for the program since 1998, and more that 10,000 teachers from across the U.S. have now been through the summer sessions.

At a time when the U.S. has a million unfilled technology jobs, engineering colleges, other educators, and employers have come to prize alumni from the PLTW courses—who score higher on math and tech tests, say they want to study engineering or computer science or other tech-related fields in seven cases out of ten, and drop out of university engineering programs at just one quarter the national rate of attrition. Clarkson University was one of the first high-quality tech schools to offer scholarships directly to PLTW students, and at some engineering schools today between 40 and 60 percent of the freshmen enrolled are project alums. Toyota and other employers are now also fast-tracking PLTW graduates into their technical training programs and skilled jobs.

The philanthropy of country-music singer Dolly Parton (much of it anonymous) has aimed mostly to help her neighbors in the middle South raise their level of education, and boost the economy of the region. She has provided college scholarships in her home county since the 1970s, and through her Dollywood Foundation offers incentives to reduce high-school dropout rates in the area.

Then in 1996, Parton launched an even earlier intervention: her Imagination Library. The goal was to capture young hearts and minds and teach children to love reading from infancy. The mechanism: allow any child to build his or her own collection of books by kindergarten, at no cost to the family. The program sends a child one book per month, every month, from birth until his or her fifth birthday. Parton began the Imagination Library in her home county of Sevier in east Tennessee, and explained in a 2006 interview with the Washington Post that she wanted to give children something that had been rare in her family. Her father couldn't read, and “my mother was married when she was in the seventh grade, so a lot of my people didn’t get a chance to get an education. Imagination Library was born out of my need to try to help people, knowing what a handicap it was with a lot of my relatives.”

The program quickly became enormously popular, and Parton opened it beyond Tennessee in 2000, offering to replicate the library in any community willing to help support it financially. The service is now active in 1,600 locales, sending books to nearly 700,000 children every month. Every year now, the Imagination Library puts millions of books into the hands of preschool children in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. As of 2016 it had mailed children more than 70 million free books.

There are many students with high academic potential growing up in families that lack the means or confidence to steer their child toward a top college. Of the 30,000 low-income students who score at least 1300 on the SAT every year, only one out of five apply to even a single selective college. Over the last generation, a bevy of philanthropic organizations has grown up to identify these high-potential students, show them how to apply to elite institutions, and help them succeed once enrolled.

One of the older and larger examples is QuestBridge, founded in 1994 in the Bay Area as an outgrowth of one-to-one mentoring that a University of California, San Francisco medical student and his friends were offering to local low-income students. The program grew quickly and now offers a variety of summer programs, campus visits, application-counseling, and ultimately four-year full scholarships for students who are matched to 35 participating colleges like Stanford, Harvard, Emory, Rice, and Columbia. Yale, for instance, had about 200 QuestBridge scholars on campus in 2014, with plans to take even more in the future.

QuestBridge prepares about 3,000 students each year, mostly first-in-the-family-to-college, then matches the top 500 to an admission with a full scholarship at one of its partner colleges. “It’s like a national admissions office” for capable students who would otherwise never show up on top campuses, summarizes Vassar College president Catharine Bond Hill.

Other nonprofit programs like Posse (see 1989 entry nearby), the Daniels Scholars, the Opportunity Network, and the Gates Millennium Scholars (see 1999 entry) provide similar services. There are also many programs run by specific colleges or companies that target students in their local area. Most of these combine counseling, summer boot camps, large scholarships, mentoring, and internships (made available by thousands of companies). Donors are legion, from the Daniels Fund to the Packard, Hewlett, George Roberts, Charles Hayden, and Hecksher foundations, among many others.

In the early 1990s it was easier for well-meaning observers to assume that the failures in American public education might be undone with just a little more effort and spending within established educational channels. Publisher Walter Annenberg had an interest in national service, but little appetite for philosophical or political boat-rocking. When he offered a large sum of money and a challenge to the nation from the White House with President Clinton at his side in 1993, he assumed his $500 million plus a bit of goodwill and social engineering could nudge American public schooling into new effectiveness. At the time, and to this day, his grant was the largest ever to public education. After being matched by partner contributions the Annenberg Challenge came to $1.1 billion of special spending for the recipient public schools.

The challenge operated through 18 entities touching a total of 35 states. At each site, leadership groups distributed grants ranging from $1 million to $53 million, with additional public support often supplementing these funds. The Chicago program (which was run by Barack Obama, following a plan written by Bill Ayers) put $49 million into pet projects. The Boston program spent $10 million on a Boston Plan for Excellence that promised vaguely to improve educational practices in classrooms.

A lack of critical perspective and an unwillingness to take on the educational establishment’s sacred cows, however, ultimately prevented the huge effort from yielding any measurable progress. The assessment study on the Chicago program, for instance, reported that “findings from large-scale survey analyses, longitudinal field research, and student achievement test score analyses reveal that…there is little evidence of an overall Annenberg school improvement effect. Any improvements were much like those occurring in demographically similar non-Annenberg schools.” Indeed, classroom behavior and other measures were actually worse after the Annenberg experiments.

This costly disappointment motivated subsequent education-reform donors to be more demanding of hard measures on student progress, instead of simple tallies of inputs like additional spending and teachers. And it encouraged donors to focus on system change, rather than just pouring funds into more of the same in conventional public schools.

For millions of college students across the world, the digital database of academic journal articles known as JSTOR (for “Journal STORage”) is a central part of their educational experience. As pervasive as it has become in college research and coursework, however, JSTOR is a relatively recent creation, the offspring of a collaboration between a philanthropic foundation and a leading public university. Devised by William Bowen, then president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton University, the impetus for JSTOR was the seemingly endless expense of buying and shelving in college libraries hundreds of specialized journals. After attending a college board of trustees meeting in which he was presented with a $5 million pricetag for new facilities to store back-issues of scholarly journals, Bowen became convinced that there had to be a better way to provide access to the materials academic libraries need.

The Mellon Foundation enlisted the University of Michigan, where a smaller project had begun to enable universities to access scientific journals via an electronic database. The foundation’s funding began with a $700,000 grant to develop the requisite software, followed by an additional $1.5 million for production. Over the five-year launch period, the Mellon Foundation provided $5.2 million for the project.

The foundation decided early on that JSTOR needed to be an independent organization, and it was launched as such in 1995. Two years later, after Bowen had negotiated licensing rights with an initial batch of journal publishers, and the team at Michigan had digitally archived the back issues, JSTOR went public. Almost immediately the database saved educational institutions hundreds of millions of dollars in library and storage costs. JSTOR has also made it possible for students in developing countries to have access to a wealth of knowledge that hitherto would have been beyond their financial reach. Recently, the organization began working with academic publishers on way to provide libraries with cheaper and wider access to books as well.

  • Roger Schonfeld, JSTOR: A History (Princeton University Press, 2003)

In 1992, three local college professors decided to try to improve high-school science and math in the New Orleans region. Enlisting business and civic supporters to their cause, they opened the New Orleans Center for Science and Math (known as SciHigh) as a half-day program that students from any area public school could access. Without any preselecting or testing of its students, the school is one of the few completely open science and math academies in the country.

The program’s focus was underserved students, particularly African Americans. Its backers believed that most students could master high-level science, technology, engineering, and math if taught by knowledgeable and demanding teachers. Students quickly proved them right, and 12 successful years followed.

After Hurricane Katrina, the center reopened as a full-time charter school—the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School. Three quarters of its students are African-American, and a similar number qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Fully 97 percent of these students pass the science section of the state exit exam in their first sitting, and 95 percent do so on the math section. The school offers ten A.P. classes (the most of any open-admission New Orleans school), and 80 percent of all seniors are enrolled in at least one. Its student body of 400 boasts a 93 percent graduation rate.

Started in 1923 as a two-year teacher’s college in southern New Jersey, Rowan University is today home to 14,000 students, and one of only 56 institutions in the country granting full degrees in engineering, business, education, and medicine. Its unlikely rise was propelled by Henry Rowan’s 1992 donation of $100 million—at that point the largest gift ever offered to a public college.

Having grown up amid the Depression, during which his family lost all of its money and his parents divorced, Rowan later recorded in his autobiography that his mother embedded within him “a doctrine of thrift and self-reliance” and “an inner drive that has no off switch.” After service in World War II as a B-17 pilot he completed an electrical engineering degree at MIT, then started work at a big company that made metal-melting furnaces. Finding the managers unresponsive to his suggested improvements, he sold his family home, moved into a rental, and used the equity to start his own business, building its first furnace in his cellar and backyard.

Eventually Rowan’s Inductotherm Industries became a multihundred-million dollar company, but he and his wife, Betty, continued to shop carefully, drive older American cars, and live simply. In the early 1990s, Glassboro State College, an undistinguished school near Rowan’s home, asked for a small contribution. He took a liking to some of the ambitious administrators and students and told them, “We should be teaching people how to build things, how to create real wealth, real jobs. Maybe we should be talking about industrial engineering, not business administration.” He eventually offered the college $100 million on the condition that it establish an excellent engineering school. Glassboro obliged, and made a decision to change its name to Rowan University to boot. Thus began a meteoric rise that yielded a chemical-engineering program ranked third in the country (which feeds graduates to employers across the region), the first new medical school in New Jersey in more than a generation, and solid technical education in a range of fields.

“I give MIT a little every year for a scholarship program,” Rowan explained later, but “MIT has billions of dollars stashed away,” whereas in south Jersey his donation made a huge difference. “It turned out marvelously,” Rowan concluded, while nonetheless keeping his business and philanthropic contributions in perspective: “We have 5,000 employees…. We’ve been averaging $200 million a year in sales in New Jersey. Over the years, we’ve probably paid out $3 billion in salaries and expenditures locally. That’s worth far more to south Jersey than even $100 million to the college.”

The Walton Family Foundation was founded in 1991, the same year that Minnesota passed the nation’s first law establishing charter schools. The two innovations soon prospered in tandem, but only after some trial and error. After the foundation’s early educational grants yielded disappointing results, John Walton concluded that empowering parents to choose among meaningful alternatives would be the best way to encourage excellent education. Schools would strive for the “business” of more parents, resulting in the long run in more successful institutions catering to a wider range of students. Under the status quo, he warned, “money in education comes from the top, filters its way down, and various interest groups and factions pull off their share into what they think is important. The customers at the bottom just take what they’re given.” If the customers are offered options, he believed, the incentives for educational improvement will be much stronger.

The foundation’s grantmaking strategy was rebuilt around these convictions. A centerpiece was support for charter schools—which bring decentralized management to public education, and allow parents to select schools instead of being assigned to them. Since 1996 when its charter-school funding began, Walton has given grants to fully one out of every four charter-school startups in the U.S. The foundation has also been a crucial supporter of organizations that help charters find buildings, organizations that raise standards of charter-school performance, and organizations that monitor and enforce charter quality.

The Walton Foundation’s focus on helping charters flourish—and on encouraging school choice generally, and bold educational reform as a whole—has made it the national leader in bringing excellence and choice to families in neighborhoods that have been poorly served by conventional schools. Walton’s total giving to education reform exceeds a billion dollars, with the pace accelerating in the past few years, and the funding heavily focused on low-income and minority children.

In 1991, insurance executive Patrick Rooney established the CHOICE Trust, a first-of-its-kind program to provide vouchers enabling low-income parents in Indianapolis to send their children to private or parochial schools. Families could qualify to have half the cost of tuition covered. Seeded by a gift from Rooney, the Trust was also supported by other philanthropic foundations and corporations. In the three days following its creation, the CHOICE program received over 600 applications, and 900 more poured in over ensuing months. The startling demand from Indianapolis parents led the trust to expand the number of vouchers it funded in its first year from 500 to 744. As the program continued to grow in size and popularity, it widened eligibility to include parents outside of Indianapolis, bringing educational choice to a greater proportion of Indiana families. Rooney’s program is credited with inspiring the creation of similar voucher organizations across the country, with one estimate putting the number of successor groups at over 100. Since its founding, the trust has provided more than $20 million in tuition support for Indiana children.

In 1989, a Princeton undergraduate named Wendy Kopp wrote a thesis proposing a new elite corps that would give teaching an urgency, prestige, and national mission similar to military or other service work. She suggested that with the right combination of challenges and stiff demands, thousands of recent graduates from America’s very best colleges could be lured into teaching instead of jumping to law school or Wall Street or one of the high-paying professions where many of her peers traditionally headed. With $2.5 million of initial philanthropic backing (Ross Perot provided a crucial early gift of $500,000), Kopp managed to launch a working version of her idea the very next year, when 500 bright and earnest college graduates joined the first corps of Teach For America. By 2014, nearly 33,000 of the nation’s best and brightest had signed on for a two-year TFA stint, instructing a total of more than 3 million children in some of our neediest schools.

TFA gets results. Its instructors “have a positive effect on high-school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers,” concluded an Urban Institute study in 2008, with this effect being “particularly strong in math and science.” Mathematica Policy Research compared TFA teachers and other teachers in the same school, and found that randomly assigned students made about an extra month’s worth of progress on math when they had a TFA instructor. In 2011, 90 percent of principals who work with TFA teachers expressed high levels of satisfaction with their work, with a majority saying their training made them more effective than graduates of conventional teacher colleges.

The ultimate compliment is that TFA instructors are prized. When the KIPP network was pioneering its highly successful school formula, about two thirds of the people they hired as school leaders were TFA alumni; even today a full third of KIPP teachers come out of TFA. In difficult inner-city neighborhoods that are hard to staff, conventional public schools also rely heavily on TFA teachers, particularly in areas like math and science, special ed, and bilingual instruction. More generally, much of the education reform movement today is being built by alumni of TFA.

Schools across the country would hire even more TFA corps members except that demand outstrips supply. This despite a doubling in the size of the program over the last five years—to a budget of over $250 million and more than 6,000 new incoming corps members annually. TFA has managed to grow rapidly without lowering its standards: in 2013 the program accepted only 11 percent of 57,000 applicants. Its cachet among talented young people is such that as much as 10-15 percent of the senior classes at colleges like Harvard, Spelman, Berkeley, and Yale have sought to enter the corps in some recent years. Looking at TFA’s alumni from its inception, about 30 percent are still teaching, and two thirds are working in education full-time or pursuing further studies in the field. The 50,000 corps members and alumni have become a key constituency for elevating standards across many corners of the U.S. schooling system.

The philanthropic support that has powered TFA from the beginning has soared along with its enrollments. Don Fisher recognized in the early 1990s that a shortage of qualified reform-minded teachers could become a serious constraint on growth of the highly effective new charter schools that he and other donors were then sprouting across the country. So the Fisher Fund donated a total of $100 million to TFA during its first two decades. At TFA’s twentieth anniversary, the Broad, Arnold, and Robertson Foundations, plus Steve and Sue Mandel, each provided $25 million to a create a long-term endowment for the organization. Steady attacks from teacher unions and apologists for the educational status quo in inner cities have reduced student enrollments in recent years. But support from philanthropists remains robust—including $50 million from the Walton Foundation in 2015.

Posse has a simple mission: create social supports at top colleges to reduce dropout rates among students from poor urban neighborhoods. Although many elite colleges are anxious to have low-income and minority students on their campuses, they find it difficult to keep them in school. Even when provided with generous scholarship packages, students from these backgrounds often fail to complete their degrees. The missing supports, founder Debbie Bial realized, were social.

So Posse now works with universities to identify, in each of its ten operating cities, groups of ten high-potential high-school seniors who might not otherwise consider that top-flight university. Rather than bringing them in as isolated enrollees, Posse recruits them as a group (or posse) to undergo together eight months of training in teamwork, academics, and leadership before they enroll together at one of the foundation’s partner universities—where each will be guaranteed a full scholarship. Once enrolled on campus, members of the posse continue to meet, offering each other support. They also receive weekly mentoring from Posse liaisons throughout their four years of undergraduate study. And as they approach graduation, Posse provides them with internship opportunities, an alumni network, and career counseling.

Multiple posses are pulled together in each city most years. As of 2015, Posse had sent 275 students to 53 top-tier colleges, secured $806 million in scholarships for those students, and graduated them at a rate of 90 percent. In recent years the foundation has added similar programs to help recently returned veterans succeed at elite colleges, and to support students majoring in demanding STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, or math). In addition to the tuition waivers contributed by the participating colleges, Posse has been fueled by private donations—hundreds every year from smaller donors, as well as major gifts like the $60 million offered by the Ubben family.

Education policy doesn’t change overnight; it must be nurtured until its moment arrives. The organization that did most to incubate America’s expanded interest in school choice was the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. In 1986, Bradley allocated $75,000 to fund the writing of an influential book by education scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe that laid out clear empirical data in support of increased parental options in schooling. After its publication, Bradley provided an additional $300,000 to distribute the book widely. In its home state, Bradley was also instrumental in founding the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a think-tank that concentrated on education policy in its early years. Bradley also provided other infrastructure that helped the state of Wisconsin create pioneering programs, beginning in 1990, that provided low-income parents with publicly funded vouchers they could use to send their children to private schools. In parallel, Bradley itself supported various privately funded scholarships for low-income students. These could be used not only at private but also at religious schools.

As interest in vouchers and better choices in schooling soared in Wisconsin, demand began to outstrip the capacity of private schools. So in 1995 the legislature also added religious schools to the options available to parents. A lawsuit was brought against the state program alleging that this was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. When an injunction against the vouchers threatened the academic careers of several thousand Milwaukee children already enrolled in voucher schools, the Bradley Foundation stepped in with a million dollars to fund their tuition while the legal maneuvering proceeded. Bradley also put up close to a million dollars over a period of years to defend the program in court. After long battling, this ultimately resulted in two landmark wins before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, upholding the choice program and allowing its extension to religious schools in 1998. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court concurred that school-choice programs are constitutional even if parents use them to send their children to religious schools.

The demand for private- and religious-school vouchers in Milwaukee, so great that there were again no slots left in participating schools by 2001, next spurred Bradley to offer a $20 million grant to increase the capacity of the participating schools. The resulting expansions allowed schools to accept additional students, and ensured that Milwaukee parents had not just theoretical educational choices for their children but real ones. By the 2015 school year, Milwaukee families could choose from either their local public school or one of 122 private and religious schools participating in the city’s Parental Choice Program. Nearly 30,000 Milwaukee children attended one of the voucher schools. Counterpart programs had been created in Racine (20 schools) and statewide (98 more private and religious schools).

This great Milwaukee experiment powered by the Bradley Foundation was watched intently by advocates and opponents of school choice all across the country. It eventually spawned scores of other city and statewide scholarship programs. It also encouraged the formation of new public attitudes that allowed multiple forms of school choice, including the charter-school movement, to become mass phenomena.

Founded in Michigan in 1844, Hillsdale College was built up in the early 1850s by hundreds of small private donations after professor and preacher Ransom Dunn rode more than 6,000 across the western frontier collecting funds to build a new hilltop campus. While eight out of ten American colleges founded before the Civil War would eventually close, this broad base of giving allowed Hillsdale to survive and prosper. Clear principles were central to Hillsdale’s appeal to donors. It was the first American college to prohibit in its charter any discrimination based on race, religion, or sex. It was the second college in the U.S. to grant four-year liberal arts degrees to women. It was a force for the abolition of slavery. During the Civil War, 400 Hillsdale students fought for the Union, a higher level of participation than from any other western college.

In the 1970s Hillsdale refused on philosophical grounds to comply with demands from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that it count its student body by race. Courts ruled that because students brought federal student aid to the college, it must submit to any federal requirement. In response, Hillsdale announced that as of the 1984 school year it would withdraw from all forms of federal assistance. A few years later Grove City College took the same course for the same reason. In 2007, Hillsdale also stopped accepting funds from the state of Michigan, again to guard its independence of action.

To replace government aid and provide similar scholarship assistance to students, Hillsdale launched major efforts to raise private funds nationally. Today Hillsdale brings in approximately $50 million in donations every year, with private funding and investment income exceeding tuition and other revenues remitted by students, and zero reliance on public funds.

In 1982, a dozen or so education scholars devoted to high standards, choices for families, and accountability for schools and teachers met at Columbia Teachers College and resolved to assemble themselves into a kind of reform network. The Andrew Mellon and John Olin foundations provided initial funding, and the Educational Excellence Network crystallized as a kind of floating think tank that, over a period of decades, operated under the wing of a succession of nonprofits: first Columbia, then Vanderbilt University, next the Hudson Institute, and finally the Thomas Fordham Foundation. Many donors aroused by the underperformance of U.S. public schools eventually became supporters of what is now known as the Thomas Fordham Institute. These included foundations like Koret, Templeton, Joyce, Kauffman, Helmsley, Kern, Hume, Hertog, GE, CityBridge, Schwab, Carnegie, Searle, and Bloomberg. During its more than three decades of existence the network has produced or influenced many consequential research studies and conferences, from E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, to the book What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, to much sharp and influential commentary posted on Fordham’s website and blogs.

Eugene Lang attended the East Harlem elementary school P.S. 121 back in the 1930s. He went on to Swarthmore College on a scholarship, and then Columbia and Brooklyn Polytechnic for additional studies. His education helped him become wealthy running manufacturing businesses. After agreeing to speak to graduating sixth graders at P.S. 121 in 1981, he arrived intending to tell them that with enough hard work they could be as successful as he had been. Then just before he spoke the principal pointed out that, as a statistical matter, a majority of the students he would be addressing were unlikely to graduate from high school. Improvising his commencement speech on the spot, Lang told the 61 assembled sixth graders and their families that if they successfully completed high school, he would personally provide college tuition costs. Invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech, which he had seen delivered in 1963, Lang encouraged the students to aim high with the knowledge that financial obstacles would not obstruct their education.

When the high-school graduation date of the P.S. 121 “Dreamers” drew near, Lang’s promise attracted wide public attention. He had launched efforts to support the children he addressed, and more than 80 percent eventually earned diplomas, with 32 children pursuing higher education, and almost all acquiring fulfilling jobs. To spread his promise beyond East Harlem, Lang established the “I Have a Dream” Foundation in 1986. It has provided tuition assistance to more than 15,000 students through affiliates across the country. Lang’s total gifts to education exceed $150 million. His experiences inspired many other philanthropic acts, including financier Paul Tudor Jones’s creation in 1988 of the extraordinarily successful New York City charity known as the Robin Hood Foundation.

For reasons that are hard to fathom, phonics (teaching children to understand the relationship between word sounds and various letters or groups of letters) became controversial with “progressives” at many teacher colleges about a generation ago. As a result, new readers today often never learn the relationship between words they hear and what they see on paper. The National Council on Teacher Quality reported in 2013 that only 18 percent of teacher-prep colleges offer all of the components of good reading programs, with phonics awareness being the main oversight.

A number of philanthropists have tried to compensate for this blind spot in teacher education. In 1997, for instance, David Packard committed tens of millions of dollars to develop and expand reading curricula that included phonetic tools, then absent from most of the instructional guidelines used in his home state of California. The donor who has perhaps been most enduring in resisting the abandonment of phonics instruction is Sandra Rose. Widow of New York City real-estate magnate Frederick Rose, and a major donor to educational causes generally, Rose founded the Reading Reform Foundation in 1981, and has since funded (along with other donors like the Leir and Skirball foundations) its work providing intensive training and classroom support to reading teachers in the New York metro region.

More than 20,000 teachers and principals have benefited from the foundation’s assistance. Twice a week throughout the school year, 30 foundation employees and consultants offer expert assistance in New York City-area public schools. Training one teacher (which includes 120 hours of expert visits to her classroom over the course of a year) costs RRF $15,000, of which $12,000 is subsidized by foundation donors, while $3,000 is charged to the school.

In 2012, Rose and a co-author published a book outlining the foundation’s successful phonics methods so they can be copied by other schools and organizations across the country. Rose also provided a $1.2 million grant to Manhattanville College in 2013 to establish a literacy institute that will instruct the nearly 800 students in its School of Education in practical integration of phonics into effective reading instruction.

Among the most significant intellectual revolutions of America’s twentieth century is the so-called Law and Economics movement. Pioneered at the University of Chicago, this school of thought has injected market disciplines and knowledge into the making of legal and regulatory policy. In the process, notes distinguished legal scholar Michael McConnell, it “has profoundly affected the way we think and talk about law.”

It is highly doubtful that the new scholarship would have taken root as it has absent the dedicated support of the John M. Olin Foundation. A scientist and successful business-builder, Olin viewed market mechanisms as important guarantors of both efficiency and equity. His foundation began funding scholarships to promote economic logic, then eventually concentrated on a methodical and focused effort to underwrite professors committed to a new synthesis of economic principles and jurisprudence, at some of the country’s top colleges and universities. All told, Olin contributed about $50 million to support Law and Economics scholarship within law schools, and an additional $20 million to underwrite individual research and special programs.

One specialized Olin-funded program offered economics training for judges. By 2015 4,000 sitting judges had participated in these seminars, including a very large portion of all top federal jurists. A typical institute for judges might include 21 hours of lectures over a several-day period, plus about 500 pages of required reading on economic issues and their relevance in the courtroom. This has helped familiarize the judiciary with the complexities of economic regulation and related issues, and has had a remarkable influence in introducing high-level economic reasoning into legal decisionmaking in America.

By the time he endowed the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911, Andrew Carnegie had already given away some $43 million and started five charitable organizations. But he was 76 years old, and the day-to-day strain of managing his own philanthropy was getting to him. After consultation with friends, he gave $125 million to start a trust to distribute funds in his name. Additional sums were transferred upon his death.

One of the Carnegie Corporation’s lasting achievements was in the area of children’s television. In the 1960s, the trust began exploring whether television could be used as an instrument for education of the young. It allocated funds for TV producer Joan Clooney to explore, through interviews with medical and learning professionals, the possible viability of educational broadcasting. Her study suggested there was promise, but the multimillion-dollar costs of actually producing high-quality programming led Carnegie to seek out partners who could help it explore the idea further. The Ford Foundation eventually stepped forward to add $1.25 million to the Carnegie Corporation’s 1968 grant of $1 million. This in turn opened the door to contributions from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Office of Education. And with these joint resources, the Children’s Television Workshop was established.

The Children’s Television Workshop inaugurated a new way of planning and making television shows—combining creative work by writers and directors with educator expertise, and drawing on the results of more than a thousand studies and lab experiments on how children absorb knowledge. When the new CTW program “Sesame Street” premiered in 1969, the Educational Testing Service was given a contract to measure its effect on child viewers.

A string of studies showed that watching “Sesame Street” mildly increases letter recognition, vocabulary, and other elements of school readiness of preschoolers. 1994 research funded by the Markle Foundation, another loyal “Sesame” funder, found that some positive effects lasted through adolescence. (Meanwhile, passive cartoon watching and much other “children’s programming” turns out to have negative cognitive effects on the very young.) Today, “Sesame Street” is the most widely viewed children’s TV series in the world, and the winner of more than 100 Emmy Awards, showing that television can be fun for children while, at least, avoiding harming them.

In 1966, the federal government published a major investigation into the effectiveness of schools (and how that intersects with race) which came to be known as the Coleman Report. As soon as it was released the report was understood to be important, but at more than 700 pages, with 650,000 students in its sample, its specifics were not quickly absorbed. To make sure it wasn’t ignored, Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan obtained a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to convene a yearlong seminar to dissect and analyze the findings. The Harvard Faculty Seminar attracted 75 prominent scholars as regular attendees at its twice-monthly meetings, and resulted in a book and many papers which cemented Coleman’s key insights. First among these were that home environment and peer influences are far more important than schools in determining educational outcomes, and that when it comes to schools, the quantity of money or other inputs pumped in has little correlation with results.

“Up until that time, very little attention was paid to student outcomes. It was all about inputs,” says Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who was an important participant in the Harvard Seminar. The Harvard/Carnegie dissection of the Coleman Report drove home that schools must be judged by what their enrollees actually learn—as revealed in testing data—not by spending or class size. This new perspective fired the next wave of school reform—and recognition that school management is more important than physical resources, and that the only changes of consequence are those that produce measurably different outcomes.

  • Frederick Mosteller and Daniel Moynihan, On Equality of Educational Opportunity (Random House, 1972)

In 1961, Charles and Marie Robertson anonymously gave Princeton University $35 million to create programs at its Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy and International Affairs that would “strengthen the government of the United States and increase its ability and determination to defend and extend freedom throughout the world by improving the facilities for the training and education of young men and women for government service.” At the time, it was the largest grant ever bestowed upon a single university, and by 2008 the donated assets were worth more than $900 million.

Within five years, the Robertsons were unhappy with Princeton. They did not like the direction or results at the Woodrow Wilson School, and had come to believe that Princeton accepted the donation without really intending to pursue its stated purposes. In 2002 the family brought suit, contending that the university had never been serious about honoring the Robertsons’ goals, and instead spent the funds however it chose. Just before the case went to trial in 2009 the two parties reached a settlement which saw Princeton paying all the legal bills of the foundation while also returning about $50 million to the Robertson family. This case reinforced for donors, and also recipients, the importance of clearly spelling out the intent behind a gift—whenever possible with concrete and measurable results—and making sure that both parties are committed to the mission.

Even the quintessential government responsibility of national defense turns out to have elements where private giving can solve needs more effectively than state action. Retired general and successful businessman George Olmsted identified just such a niche. His service during World War II had required many delicate cultural judgments and political negotiations with allies and opponents in the China-Burma-India-Japan theaters. He was, for instance, given responsibility for making sure that as the Japanese surrender neared the commandants of their prisoner-of-war camps did not slaughter American prisoners as a face-saving action under Japan’s bushido martial code. Olmsted’s elaborate culture-based solution included parachuting teams of seven unarmed men into each camp, who informed the Japanese commanders by name that they would be held personally responsible for the safety of all prisoners.

After becoming wealthy building a string of insurance companies and banks after the war, Olmsted and his wife formed a charitable foundation to deepen the international savvy and judgment of military leaders so they could better navigate the kinds of dilemmas he faced in wartime. General Olmsted focused his trust tightly on funding intensive overseas immersions of active-duty military officers in two years of foreign language and culture training. The program was later expanded to also support shorter foreign-study immersions by cadets at U.S. military academies and future officers in the ROTC program.

To date, 601 active-duty officers have done full two-year stints in more than 50 countries as Olmsted Scholars, becoming deeply familiar with the people, history, and institutions of strategic countries like China, Egypt, Poland, Russia, and Turkey. These have included men and women like John Abizaid, who spent two years learning Arabic and Arab culture at the University of Jordan as a young officer and Olmsted Scholar—skills that he later drew upon heavily as CentCom commander during the Iraq war.

During the 1960s (and after), many liberal reformers became convinced that the best way to improve social outcomes in areas like schooling, crime and safety, employment, and family structure was not to work on specific weaknesses of those sectors, but rather to “rebuild communities” broadly by redistributing income and political power and providing wholly new physical vessels like public housing projects, school campuses, and large “urban renewal” projects. According to this materialistic and utopian view, most of the problems visible in social life would heal and brighten when people were shifted into new structures and social forms engineered by technocrats, via root-and-branch “community redevelopment.”

In 1959 the Ford Foundation launched one of the first major education reforms based on this view—its “Great Cities School Project,” which aimed to turn the test cities of Boston, Oakland, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. into laboratories for duplication elsewhere. Almost instantly, the staff decided they couldn’t improve inner-city schools unless they first remade the inner city, so they created new “community action agencies” charged with funneling social-welfare aid in multiple forms into the test cities. Very soon the foundation decided that this too was insufficient. Even more comprehensive “urban renewal” was needed—which led to razing whole city blocks and construction of new “affordable housing” and “planned economic development” projects.

Jane Jacobs and other observers later pointed out that these enormously intrusive interventions only left poor people more disrupted and unsettled. Neither the Great Cities project nor other forms of “urban renewal” produced any positive outcomes or support from the populations affected, in spite of the large sums poured into these efforts by Ford, allied philanthropies, and various levels of government. (Spending in the first few years by the Ford Foundation alone exceeded $200 million in current dollars.)

Tragically, the Johnson administration, in its fervor to launch a “War on Poverty” in the early ’60s, seized on Ford’s model as the handiest available mechanism for trying to remake the world from Washington. The five Ford pilots, started as mere school-improvement plans, were taken over and funded by the federal government’s new Office of Economic Opportunity as the first elements of its “Community Action Program.” Bulldozing of old city blocks, social engineering, and gushing welfare spending spiraled across the country.

Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy and the Great Cities architects—who had designed their efforts from the beginning as an “adjunct to government”—felt vindicated, and certain that the much bigger hammer wielded by the feds would bring the success that had eluded them. In inner-city schools and neighborhoods, however, there were almost no positive results. Instead, social and educational indicators would spiral downward over the next three decades in the neighborhoods being “revitalized.”

In 1955 the Ford Foundation announced an extraordinary “special appropriation” of $560 million—the equivalent of more than $5 billion in 2015—the largest single investment in the history of philanthropy—to strengthen America’s private colleges and hospitals. The foundation’s stated aims were to bolster educational salaries, help private colleges compete with state-subsidized universities, and improve medical education and services. Over an 18-month period, checks were sent to every one of the 615 accredited private colleges in the U.S., with the amount determined by the size of their 1954-55 payroll, adding bonuses for colleges that could demonstrate they were “a leader in raising teacher salaries.” The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, received a grant of $2.7 million ($24 million in 2014 dollars). Checks were also written to every one of the country’s private, nonprofit hospitals, with the sum determined by the number of births and patient-days they recorded in 1954. Commenting on the sum effect of Ford’s massive gift, the president of Yale University characterized it as a “trailblazing action giving new strength to American education.”

In mid-twentieth-century America, business was already a popular college major, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Even with one out of seven students on campus specializing in some form of business education, however, the quality and rigor of these programs was often low. To upgrade the discipline, the Ford Foundation committed $35 million over a 12-year period to support research, fellowships, conferences, and faculty training. The foundation’s grantmaking was driven by three objectives: to place business education on firmer academic footing, to bring it into line with the needs of the American economy, and to increase its efficiency. Ford was particularly effective in fostering high-quality business-administration programs at elite colleges, infusing them with perspectives from economics, statistics, and political science. These programs were then emulated elsewhere. A signal accomplishment of the initiative was the Gordon-Howell report, which was influential in pushing business schools to raise standards of admission and develop rigorous, interdisciplinary curricula. By reinforcing the training offered to men and women managing productive entities, these investments fattened the output of the American economy.

New U.S. responsibilities on the global stage after World War II brought needs for expertise in many exotic regions. To fill knowledge gaps that were handicapping policymakers, business executives, and other American leaders, foundations like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford took steps to expand intensive study of critical areas such as the Soviet Union, Asia, and the Middle East. In addition to raising general levels of understanding, this increased the supply of Americans with the language skills and cultural knowledge to make good commercial, diplomatic, and military judgments about such regions. Rockefeller and Carnegie focused primarily on funding universities—establishing academic centers to study Russia at Columbia and Harvard, for instance. Ford focused in the beginning on individuals, providing $35 million of fellowships to students and established scholars over two and a half decades. As individual experts began to populate these fields, Ford funded institutional structures as well, beginning in 1960 with $15 million of grants to further “area studies” work on places like the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. In 1961, Ford allocated $21 million to build programs at Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan, Notre Dame, Yale, Princeton, Washington, and other universities. This strengthened Ford’s reputation for leading the nation into timely new academic disciplines at moments of need.

Harry Earhart expanded the White Star Oil Company into a large enterprise during the automobile revolution, then established the Earhart and Relm foundations. In 1949, the Earhart Foundation focused on deepening national understanding of the role of free-market economics in creating American prosperity and liberty. It did so by supporting individual thinkers, researchers, and writers. In the 1970s, the foundation expanded its purview beyond economics to include intellectuals working in the humanities, recognizing their centrality to the preservation and persistence of American success. Over the years, the foundation awarded more than 2,500 Earhart Fellowships to graduate students, in the process showing remarkable success in identifying nascent talent. Early recipients of Earhart support include Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, James Buchanan, and others. Ronald Coase, Gary Becker, Thomas Sowell, Leo Strauss, and Peter Bauer were also supported by the foundation at critical junctures. The Earhart Fellows include six individuals who went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics. The foundation also provided grants for important research projects, and kept seminal books in print, for instance supporting publication of the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin.

Originally formed to establish a reliable flow of donations to America’s historically black colleges and universities, the United Negro College Fund later took on the added mission of distributing individual scholarships to minority students attending any college. The most important early supporter of the UNCF was John Rockefeller Jr., who became chairman and sat on its board until his death in 1960. He contributed $5,250,000 to the fund during his lifetime. The fund’s largest single gift was a $50-million donation made in 1990 by philanthropist Walter Annenberg. In 2014, industrialist Charles Koch offered a $25-million gift to support entrepreneurship programs. In addition to appealing to large donors, the fund began in the 1970s to direct broad fundraising appeals to black Americans, especially graduates of the historically black colleges, and this became another major source of annual funding. Today, the fund supports 37 member colleges, while also awarding 10,000 scholarships and internships to needy students attending 900 different institutions of higher education. The UNCF has added Native-American, Hispanic, and Asian students to its target audience, a shift accelerated when it was named administrator of the Gates Millennium Scholars program (see 1999 entry). Since its founding, UNCF has raised more than $3.6 billion in private donations to help over 400,000 students receive college degrees.

The seminal research and theory explaining the development of young children was formulated by a British psychiatrist named John Bowlby, whose career was built largely on American philanthropy. In the 1920s, the new Commonwealth Fund of New York, endowed by the Harkness family of Standard Oil fortune, was investing heavily in child welfare (see 1918 entry) in the U.S., and also in Britain. With a very substantial grant they established the biggest facility in London for treating the social and mental disorders of children, called the London Child Guidance Clinic. In 1936, John Bowlby was appointed there as a child psychiatry fellow, where he developed understanding of how deeply a child’s personality is shaped by family interactions during the first years of life (an insight now taken as commonplace, but only because Bowlby and colleagues demonstrated it uncontestably).

Bowlby and other social workers developed stellar reputations during World War II for work they did in aiding war-disturbed children. In response, Britain passed an Education Act in 1944 requiring establishment throughout the country of child-guidance clinics like the one created by the Commonwealth Fund. Bowlby was invited to take over the children’s department of the Tavistock Clinic, where medical treatment was paid for by the government health service (characterized by Bowlby as “stable, rigid, limiting”) but the pioneering research was paid for by private funding (“unstable but it could do what it liked,” as the grateful Bowlby commented).

To support his research on the effects of maternal deprivation on children, Bowlby received a small grant from a British foundation that allowed him to hire a social worker who did many of the nursery observation that became the grist for Bowlby’s studies. A short time later, Bowlby won a grant from the Josiah Macy Foundation, a New York donor then focused on treating traumatic shock and other war-related disorders. This gift allowed him to bring in Mary Ainsworth, another pioneer of child-development theory whose collaborations with Bowlby established much of the central understanding of the field. (The Macy Foundation was simultaneously supporting animal-behavior researchers who Bowlby drew upon while formulating his theories.)

Then in 1957, Bowlby won philanthropic support “on a very big scale,” as he put it, from the Ford Foundation. This sustained Bowlby’s research through his most productive years. It in turn led to a grant from what was known as the Foundations’ Fund for Research in Psychiatry (a pooling of money from three U.S. donors leading this area: the Ford, Woods Kalb, and William Grant foundations).

Private donor support thus allowed Bowlby to pull together pathbreaking research and assemble it into coherent explanations of how young children develop, why secure family life is so important to their future happiness and educability, and what can go wrong when well-meaning social interventions overlook family attachments. Fifty years later, Bowlby’s central elaborations of child psychology are still the reigning wisdom.

Though his success in business took him far beyond the borders of his native state, James Duke never truly left North Carolina. The longtime owner of Southern Power, and American Tobacco, Duke made clear his fondness for his home region when he donated $40 million to the Duke Endowment in 1924. All giving was to concentrate on educational institutions, hospitals, orphanages, and Methodist churches in North and South Carolina. The largest share, 46 percent of the endowment, was designated to support education, and of this, $6 million was set aside for the creation of “an institution to be known as Duke University” in honor of his father.

“Education, when conducted along sane and practical, as opposed to dogmatic and theoretical, lines, is, next to religion, the greatest civilizing influence,” wrote Duke. While his endowment could have been used to start a new school, Duke offered Trinity College, of which he had been a longtime supporter, the option of expanding into the wider mission he envisioned. Trinity accepted, adding schools of law, medicine, and divinity, building a new campus, and changing its name. Less than one year later Duke gave the university an additional $7 million to finish its bold expansion.

Duke was a careful and attentive donor, who enjoyed details like laying out the university grounds, and who left clear instructions and documentation for his endowment on precisely how to hoped to assist his region of birth. Of his college he said, “I want it to become a great university.” And today it is, standing as a top-tier institution alongside schools that have been developing two or three times longer.

Two decades after his father founded the General Education Board (see 1902 entry), John Rockefeller Jr. set out to expand the reach of the family’s education philanthropy. Having been involved in the expansion of the GEB from its initial focus on African-American education in the South to nationwide educational reforms, Rockefeller was positioned to go one step further and begin funding education overseas—which he began to do in 1923 when he founded the International Education Board.

Unlike the GEB, the IEB not only funded institutions but also individual scholars. Focusing mainly on science and agriculture, the board provided hundreds of fellowships, along with grants to organizations in 39 different countries. Notable projects included the 200-inch Mount Palomar telescope, to which the board contributed $1.4 million, $283,000 to support Niels Bohr’s physics research that eventually assisted the American atomic bomb, $357,000 to establish a mathematics faculty at GÖttingen, and $3 million for the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. In all, John Rockefeller Jr. contributed more than $21 million to the International Education Board during its 15 years. The IEB concluded its work in 1938, when its remaining capital, programs, and personnel were folded into other Rockefeller projects.

Early in the twentieth century, rising demand for legal services led to a sharp increase in the number of lawyers, and a perceived decline in the professional standards of many of these newly minted practitioners. It was clear that reform of some kind was needed, but there was no clear leadership. Into this breach stepped the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (whose origins are described in our 1905 entry).

The foundation had previously sparked a dramatic upgrade of medical education by sponsoring an influential critique known as the Flexner Report. That led to years of thoroughgoing reform, including $94 million of spending at 25 medical schools by John Rockefeller’s General Education Board. (See details at the 1910 entry of our Medical Achievements list.)

Seeking to repeat this feat in legal education, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching initiated two critiques of American law schools. These, along with promptings from Elihu Root, a prominent lawyer and Carnegie trustee, caused the American Bar Association to endorse higher standards of training. The ABA also partnered with the American Association of Law Schools to form the American Law Institute, which used $2.1 million of Carnegie funding to create accessible archives of the authoritative interpretations of U.S. law. ALI became the leading curator of court decisions and assisted in the development of the U.S. Uniform Commercial Code.


A $10 million gift from Anna Harkness, the wife of one of John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil partners and a great advocate of civic improvement and self-help, established the Commonwealth Fund in 1918. Under the leadership of her son Edward Harkness, the foundation promoted understanding of child psychology, and improved services and teaching for children. (See, for instance, nearby 1936 entry on John Bowlby.) Its Program for the Prevention of Delinquency sought to identify troubled children and offer assistance before they fell into trouble with the law. Through its integration of child psychiatry and social work into schools, and its discovery that parental education was a key component in reducing adolescent delinquency, the fund used the public education system to improve family well-being and American social life.

By the time John Sterling graduated from Yale in 1864, the university had left an indelible mark on him. Upon his death in 1918, three quarters of the corporate lawyer’s fortune—accruing to $29 million by 1931—was donated to Yale to establish “at least one enduring, useful and architecturally beautiful building.” The gift came as a surprise to the university, which years earlier had tried to solicit a donation from Sterling and failed.

Arriving as it did in the teeth of the Great Depression, Sterling’s bequest went a long way, ultimately producing not one but a whole set of cornerstone buildings on the Connecticut campus—including Sterling Memorial Library, Sterling Law Building, Sterling Hall of Medicine, Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, the Hall of Graduate Studies, and other dorms and classrooms. Sterling’s donation also provided for “scholarships, fellowships, or lectureships; the endowment of new professorships, and the establishment of special funds for prizes.” There are now more than two dozen Sterling Professors at Yale, including some of the world’s leading authorities in the fields of law, political science, and literature. Today Yale honors its large donors with the title Sterling Fellow, thus reproducing the namesake’s practice of formative private giving.

For three decades, the Lincoln School at Columbia University’s Teachers College was at the vanguard of experimental education. Teachers College was the country’s most influential center for teacher training, and the Lincoln School provided a laboratory for the development of curricula and educational practices that the college would later incorporate into its educational program. The school was established with money from John Rockefeller’s General Education Board and sustained by additional philanthropic donations. Rockefeller was sufficiently convinced of the efficacy of the Lincoln School to educate his sons there. The purpose of the school was “to construct a fundamental curriculum which will be representative of the important activities, interests, and possibilities of modern life.” Organized and led by some of the leading educational thinkers of the time, including former Harvard president Charles Eliot, the school was a potent institutionalization of new ideas in education. It operated independently until 1941, when it was combined with the Horace Mann School, another experimental facility with close ties to Teachers College, eventually closing in 1946.

There are few institutions that generate more affection in the hearts of donors than excellent small colleges. And no college in America is smaller, nor really more excellent, than Deep Springs, an idiosyncratic place nestled a mile above sea level in the California mountains. At any one time, Deep Springs is home to two dozen of the smartest young men in America, who are attracted by its offer of two years of intense academic study, hard ranch work for 20 hours per week, and practical lessons in communal cooperation—all 100 percent free. Its graduates usually go on to complete their degrees at top universities, and more than half of all attendees have ended up with doctoral degrees.

All this is precisely as Lucien Nunn intended. Nunn pioneered long-distance transmission of alternating electrical current, then made his fortune building power plants for mines across the American west. As he expanded his operations, he felt a keen need for hardworking, skilled men of independence and integrity. In response, Nunn purchased Deep Springs Ranch and set up a school there that melds esoteric book learning, outdoor labor, self-governance, and a dose of desert spirituality.

Nunn’s vision is now being argued over, however. Deep Springs is one of only four remaining men’s liberal-arts colleges in the country, and a majority of the trustees recently voted to go co-ed. Dissenting trustees remain convinced that Nunn’s donor intent was for Deep Springs to remain all-male and that their job as trustees is to protect that intent. “Neither trustees nor courts have the authority to change or ignore a trust provision simply because they think it isn’t optimal or preferable, even if the preference is based on their passionate moral beliefs,” trustee Kinch Hoekstra told the Atlantic. “The great thing about the legal protection of charitable trusts over time is that we don’t all have a bunch of institutions in 2013 that are wholly determined by what trustees happen to think in 2013. That would lead to an appalling homogenization of our cultural, social, and educational landscape. Instead, people set up different projects in 1880, or 1938, or 1972, and those visions, sometimes gloriously out of step with how we currently think and sometimes maddeningly so, may continue to thrive.”

As founder of the camera manufacturing and supply company Eastman Kodak, and the inventor of many of the central processes of modern photography, George Eastman was well acquainted with the rocketing importance in modern life of technical expertise. In the early dog-eat-dog days during the birth of photography, Eastman had gone to a little commuter school known as Boston Tech to hire crucial engineers on several occasions. When his business boomed, he returned the favor by anonymously donating $20 million, beginning in 1912, to create today’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He built the university an entirely new campus, where it now resides, and launched its transformation into the world-leading educational institution it is now.

In his hometown of Rochester, New York, Eastman was even more munificent in building up the University of Rochester. He donated $51 million to the institution during his lifetime, creating its medical school among many other things, in the process vaulting it into the top tier of scientific and technical universities. Eastman also did more than any other American to improve dental education and medicine, and to bring oral health care to everyday people.

In addition to these contributions to technical education, Eastman single-handedly built one of the top schools of music in the world (see the 1921 entry on our companion list of Arts achievements). And, inspired by Julius Rosenwald, he became the largest contributor in the U.S. to the education of African Americans during the 1920s.

For his fiftieth birthday in 1912, Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, donated $650,000 to a group of charities. One of the gifts was $25,000 to Booker T. Washington to help expand the school Washington led, the Tuskegee Institute. After completing his promised expansion, Washington reported to Rosenwald that $2,100 remained, and he proposed to the donor that this balance be used to build six schools for African Americans in the rural area surrounding the institute. He carefully documented progress on the schools with photos and letters from local residents. Once these were up and running, the impressed Rosenwald allocated another $30,000 for Tuskegee to construct 100 more schools throughout Alabama.

Rosenwald was a stickler for matched local contributions from the families who would benefit from the schools, and then for proof that each academy was well staffed and operating effectively. Washington was equally punctilious in demonstrating the schools’ concrete results. As Rosenwald realized how bereft of educational options most black families in the South were, and how effective his spartan schools were in serving communities that had previously been neglected, he caught the fever.

Over less than 20 years, the Rosenwald school-building program erected 4,977 rural schools and 380 companion buildings in almost every Southern locale with a substantial black population, at a total cost of $28.4 million. A major portion of the money Julius Rosenwald gave away during his lifetime (approaching $2 billion in current dollars) went into his self-organized school-building effort. In the process he put a deep constructive imprint on American society: At the time of his death in 1932, the schools Rosenwald built were educating fully 35 percent of all black students in the American South, and 27 percent of black American children as a whole.

Chocolatier Milton Hershey didn’t invent the candy bar, but he was the first to transform it from expensive delicacy to treat affordable by all, and in the process he became very wealthy. He and his sickly wife, Kitty, were unable to have children, so they decided to give their sweet fortune to orphans and other needy boys living in hardscrabble—something Milton understood well, after a peripatetic childhood and education that ended at fourth grade, due to a drinking father who left his family for long periods of time. In 1909, Hershey signed over to his new Hershey Industrial School a fully operating 486-acre farm that included the homestead where he had been born. In 1918 he went much further, placing all of his shares in the Hershey Chocolate Company in a trust whose sole purpose was to benefit the school. He kept the transfer secret until it was revealed in a 1923 interview with the New York Times, when he explained that “I have no heirs, so I have decided to make the orphan boys of the United States my heirs.” To this day, the school retains controlling interest in the Fortune 500 Hershey Company, the Hersheypark entertainment complex, and other businesses.

Right up until Milton Hershey’s death in 1945 (at which point his only assets were his home and its furnishings, having given away everything else while he was still alive) he remained intimately involved in the running of the school. He made sure his boys (and now girls too) received very practical upbringings, “a thorough common-school education, supplemented by instruction in the useful crafts.” He had three goals for every graduate: a vocation, a love of God and man, and a sense of wholesome responsibility. “We do not intend to turn out a race of professors,” he noted. Students had to build their own beds and chests in the school carpentry shop, and keep up with a host of chores, including twice-daily milking of the school’s cows. The milking requirement for students continued until 1989, as the curriculum gradually shifted toward college preparation. Highly structured chores requirements remain, as does mandatory chapel time on Sunday. And to this day, active work in the school’s agricultural, animal, and environmental centers (for example, a fish hatchery operated on the trout stream running through campus) are an important part of its efforts to promote initiative and responsibility.

Beyond this emphasis on individual commitment, discipline, and work, Hershey became known for creating a warm, personal, and nurturing environment. Students live in groups of 10 to 12, two or three to a bedroom, in more than a hundred closely clustered houses overseen by a married couple with childrearing experience. A transitional living program places seniors in quasi-independent apartments, where they get help in buying and preparing their own food, setting their schedules, and running their own lives in preparation for college or self-support after graduation.

Most students arrive at Hershey with difficult histories. Half come from families with drug or alcohol problems, 39 percent have experienced domestic violence, a fifth have been homeless, a third have an incarcerated family member, 43 percent have mental-health issues in their family, and close to half of all students get psychological treatment in a given school year. Thanks to its deep donated resources, the school is able to counteract these burdens with intensive help. It keeps 43 mental-health professionals on staff, 38 medical professionals, and seven full-time social workers. In addition to intensive counseling, that includes extensive character training, and practical help like orthodontia, speech therapy, and so forth.

As a result, Hershey’s retention rates are comparable to boarding schools serving middle-class children—nine out of ten students complete an average school year. One-hundred percent of recent graduating seniors have earned at least one industrial certification by the time they finish school. And more than three quarters go on to four-year college, while close to 10 percent enter the work force or military, with the remainder attending a technical or two-year college.

The endowment that Milton Hershey left his school is now worth $12 billion—more than what all but a few universities enjoy. That allows the charity to operate the largest boarding school in America, with 2,000 pre-K to twelfth-grade students. And it offers superb services—education, emotional support, medical care, all food, housing, and clothing, and follow-up aid like college scholarships and lifelong alumni support—completely free of charge to all children.

Unfortunately, the school’s large trust (and its ownership of the Hershey Company that is a major economic force in Pennsylvania) have attracted political intrusion. A succession of state attorneys general and governors used their oversight of the charitable sector to stack the school board with political cronies and former staffers, then pressed the trust to use its assets to boost the regional economy. This started in 1963, 18 years after Milton Hershey’s death, when $50 million of orphanage money and more than 500 acres of land were redirected by the state attorney general and the board into building a Penn State medical school on part of the old Hershey farm.

Money and land continued to be siphoned into other economic schemes, including an insolvent golf course. Board members were pressured not to sell Hershey Company shares even when that would have been in the clear interest of protecting the school by diversifying its investments. And politicians running for office over the years developed a habit of loudly promising to “make sure the Hershey trust money is used to benefit Pennsylvanians”—rather than serving more of the abandoned children who the donor wanted to be the focus. So the school stagnated at its current size even though it could have been expanded greatly. Its latest financial filings show the board now spends only 1.9 percent of Hershey assets on educational programs.

Politically connected board members also became embroiled in a series of scandals in recent years. These showed a pattern of weak supervision, excessive board compensation, resistance to board turnover, and exaggerated focus on side projects like the Hershey resort, state medical school, and golf course, rather than Milton Hershey’s beloved orphans.

In the decades after the Civil War much effort was expended by philanthropists to remedy the educational disadvantages of African Americans. (See 1867, 1902, and 1912 entries.) In addition to the work of large donors like George Peabody, Julius Rosenwald, George Eastman, and John Rockefeller, many donors of more modest scope made energetic efforts to improve education in the South, particularly in rural areas, and especially for blacks lacking publicly funded schools.

What was eventually known as the Negro Rural Schools Fund was started by devout Quaker Anna Jeanes with one million dollars in 1907 to improve educational opportunities for rural African Americans. In a kind of proto-Peace Corps model, “Jeanes Industrial Teachers” traveled throughout poor counties to provide training to the teachers in black schools (usually African American women of modest education themselves). Promising teachers were often sent to Hampton University, Tuskegee Institute, and other colleges for additional learning. The roving “Jeanes Supervisors” simultaneously labored to improve curricula, and to organize community self-help efforts that allowed the purchase of school supplies and the meeting of teacher salaries.

The success of the Jeanes model inspired other philanthropies of about the same size to collaborate in expanding the program and bringing it to a wider area—eventually even to poor populations overseas. The Jeanes fund collaborated closely with the Phelps Stokes Fund, Virginia Randolph Fund, John Slater Fund, and others. Within a few decades there were hundreds of Jeanes teachers operating across the South. The Jeanes programs remained in place until school desegregation became a reality in the 1960s.

In 1905, Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. His foremost aim, initially, was to improve the financial security of instructors. In 1907, he prodded the foundation to investigate the possibility of providing insurance for faculty members. A few years later the foundation began deep explorations of how a practical system of pensions for professors might be created. Carnegie’s efforts ultimately yielded one of the most important retirement and investment organizations in the world (see 1918 entry in Prosperity section).

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching also made other important contributions to education. It sparked the seminal modernization of American medical training. It produced ideas and research that helped the U.S. develop the best system of higher ed in the world. It created the Educational Testing Service, which continues to be the nation’s leading source of useful student exams.

  • Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching,
  • Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Private Power for the Public Good: A History of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Wesleyan, 1988)

John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were not direct competitors in industry, but in a sense they were in their philanthropy. In many areas, however, they were in close agreement and exerted complementary influences. One such shared influence was in encouraging the professionalization of higher education.

In the Rockefeller-Carnegie era, philanthropic resources were extremely important to colleges and universities. For example, the assets commanded by Rockefeller’s General Education Board in 1909—$53 million—were then equal to one fifth of the endowments at all American colleges and universities put together. Philanthropy also overshadowed annual public funding.

Rockefeller and Carnegie (along with compatriots like George Eastman, Mary Garrett, Leland Stanford, James Duke, and others) were thus well-positioned to encourage changes in the structure of higher ed. This happened in specific areas—like Rockefeller pulling medical education into the modern era, Garrett hastening coeducation at Johns Hopkins, and Carnegie improving professor pay and qualifications. It also happened in broad management.

Donor advocacy and funding required colleges to become much more businesslike by 1930. At leading private schools, nearly three quarters of trustees by that time were founders or managers of businesses. They brought with them a strong interest in improving efficiency, and expanding the customer base for college education. The academic professionalism and corporate organization that eventually propelled American higher education to the very top internationally is to a considerable degree the legacy of this philanthropy.

  • John Thelin, A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011)

John Rockefeller’s philanthropy long predates his wealth. By the time he made millions he already had years of giving under his belt, mostly to religious and educational causes. Baptist colleges and the American Baptist Home Mission Society (with which he worked to found the University of Chicago) were among his first large-scale philanthropic interests. But Rockefeller was also very supportive of education for younger people.

In 1902 he endowed the General Education Board with an initial $1 million; almost $325 million of his money eventually flowed through its books. These were the largest gifts in the U.S. during their day. The GEB’s earliest and longest focus was to build up the educational capital of the American South, which two decades after the end of the Civil War was still socially and economically depressed. The board first surveyed needs and then became a leader in promoting primary education for American blacks. By the board’s second decade it had helped build or improve more than 1,600 new high schools across the southern states.

Many other successes followed. The GEB insisted that schools at all levels keep clear, open, and honest accounting books. It required colleges to raise their own funds to match GEB grants, seeding today’s powerful campus fundraising operations. It spread knowledge of scientific agriculture in poor farming counties. It powered a methodical improvement of U.S. medical education (see 1910 entry on Medical list). It kept many colleges and schools from closing during the Depression.

More generally, the General Education Board helped usher in a new businesslike form of philanthropy. It brought expertise and spirit to the field that was energetic, creative, practical, and impatient for tangible results.

For decades a faithful Baptist, oilman John Rockefeller Sr. aspired to found a distinguished Baptist university. In 1890 he made his first contribution ($600,000) to establish the University of Chicago in league with the American Baptist Education Society. The university’s land was in turn donated by Chicago department store magnate Marshall Field. Rockefeller would eventually give the new organization tens of millions of dollars, while insisting that his name not be used anywhere on campus. His collaborator William Harper, a young Biblical scholar from Yale, and UC’s first president, oversaw a combination of English-style undergraduate college and German-style graduate research institute. With Harper’s guidance and Rockefeller’s unprecedented funding, the University of Chicago quickly became a national leader in higher education. Robert Hutchins, president from 1929 to 1951, put in place many of the innovations that the university became known for, including a core curriculum focused on classic works and original documents, an emphasis on discussion rather than lectures, interdisciplinary study, and comprehensive exams to measure progress. The core curriculum survived until the late-1990s when it was substantially modified to add “diversity.” The University of Chicago was a founding member of the Big Ten Conference and the first to give its football coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, academic tenure—until the college dropped football to concentrate on academics in 1939. Rockefeller once described the University of Chicago as “the best investment I ever made.”

Born to the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Mary Garrett inherited both wealth and a zeal for philanthropy from her father. He had been a trustee of Johns Hopkins University and close friends with both Johns Hopkins himself and George Peabody, two of the most prolific supporters of education in their era.

In 1887 Mary offered $35,000 to Hopkins to start a school of science, if they would make it coeducational. The university demurred. Later, when JHU was facing financial difficulties and having no luck launching a medical school, Garrett presented another proposal. She formed a committee to raise money for a medical school that would accept women. The group collected $100,000 in 1890, with Garrett contributing nearly half. That sum was offered to Hopkins president Daniel Gilman.

Gilman accepted the donation and its condition of female admission, but then pushed the women to raise additional money for an endowment to yield a truly top-tier medical school. When the half-million dollars of endowment that Gilman aspired for proved difficult to achieve, Garrett boldly wrote a check for more than $300,000 to push the effort over the finish line. But she gave the money with two additional conditions that turned out to be seminal in raising standards not only at Hopkins but at all medical schools: Every applicant would be required to have a bachelor’s degree in science, and Hopkins must offer not just occupational training but a full graduate education culminating in a medical degree. After resistance from the school’s trustees (these were remarkably rigorous standards for the day) the gift was agreed to. In 1893, Mary Garrett saw the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine open, with three women in the inaugural class and a stiff course of study that pushed medicine to the top of the professions.

Philadelphia merchant Isaiah Williamson was frugal and hardworking, and by the 1880s he was one of the wealthiest men in the commonwealth, with an estimated fortune of $20 million (about half a billion dollars today). He gave away millions, supporting asylums and orphanages, hospitals and benevolent societies, libraries and universities. He was “strongly moved to help the man who was trying to help himself,” said his friend John Wanamaker. “But for mere beggars, low or high, he had little sympathy.”

In 1888, Williamson founded “a school where every boy could be taught some trade free of expense,” committing more than $2 million to the facility. To this day, the school recruits young men from Philadelphia’s toughest areas, working closely with ministers, guidance counselors, and coaches to find promising individuals for whom learning an occupation could be the difference between success and happiness or misery in life. The school provides a full scholarship for all of its students, yet accepts no government money.

The school’s formula was renewed and put on solid financial footing for the future by a 2008 campaign that raised $50 million—$20 million each coming from donors Henry Rowan and Gerry Lenfest. The school only enrolls about 275 men, and prides itself on instilling character that may have even greater value to the community in the long run than the economic skills imparted. Students must live on campus, where the workweek starts with a 6:45 a.m. inspection. Every student is expected to be properly groomed and freshly shaved, in a coat and tie, with shoes polished. (Violations earn an hour of landscaping duty on the weekend.) After breakfast and mandatory chapel, half the students head to class still in coat and tie, the other half don work gear and report to shops. After lunch, they switch.

Trades classes are physically and mentally taxing, and are matched with courses in effective business writing, accounting, entrepreneurship, business ethics, and public speaking that prepare many graduates for self-reliance and economic independence. The school has zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs, and the young men must be unmarried and childless. Each dorm has just one television, located in the common room. Every student rotates through landscaping and kitchen duties, and engages in off-campus community-service projects. Masons lay the stonework at veterans’ memorials, while landscapers spruce up the grounds at retirement homes. Painters help local schools with set design, while carpenters build wheelchair ramps for state troopers disabled in the line of duty. “The goal is to create an identifiable Williamson Man,” explains former school head (and space shuttle pilot) Guy Gardner. “We believe that Williamson men will be better fathers, husbands, employees, employers, neighbors, community leaders, and gentlemen.”

The success of Standard Oil produced many fortunes and several great philanthropists—including Stephen Harkness. One of the company’s first investors, he ultimately put much of his wealth toward charitable causes. His wife and their only son, Edward, continued and extended his habit of giving. (See, for instance, the 1918 entry on the influence of Harkness family money on child psychology.)

Edward Harkness was of the opinion that American undergraduates could benefit from greater collegiality, and some his most consequential personal philanthropy went to building residential colleges where students could live, study, and socialize on a more intimate scale than university-wide activities allowed. As a Yale alumnus he first approached his alma mater with the idea, but the school would not accept the gift because of uncertainty as to how it would be managed. Undeterred, Harkness shifted his offer to Harvard, where he found a sympathetic ear. His $13 million donation was used to construct an undergraduate “house” system, modeled on the example of the decentralized college system employed by Oxford and Cambridge. A few years later Harkness went back to Yale, which this time accepted the money and with it built a much-loved residential system of its own. Today, many other universities have copied these smaller-scale residential structures, believing as Edward Harkness did that close relationships are an invaluable part of a college education.

Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a daughter of Hawaiian royalty, was offered the throne of her Pacific land in 1872 but refused it, preferring to pursue good works through her private means and devout Christian faith. Her husband, Charles, was very successful in business, and Bernice inherited ancestral land that eventually made her the largest property owner in the islands. They both put much of their energy and wealth into helping others. They drew up wills to make sure their estates would also eventually be devoted to worthy causes.

With the lion’s share of her bequest Bernice established the Kamehameha Schools to provide native Hawaiians with “a good education...and also instruction in morals and in such useful knowledge as may tend to make good and industrious men and women.” After her death from breast cancer Charles set to work making her schools a reality. A boys’ facility opened in 1887, following by a girls’ counterpart. Today the Kamehameha Schools remain the state’s largest private landowner, controlling 365,000 acres. The organization’s total endowment of $9 billion makes it one of the best-financed charities in the nation, allowing it to educate more than 7,000 children every year at almost no charge to their families.

Given the innumerable private colleges created, transformed, or sustained by private giving, it is easy to overlook the role philanthropy has played in the country’s public universities. A large private gift aimed at encouraging the flourishing of the University of Michigan was received as early as 1887. A 1906 bequest of several million dollars enabled the University of Wisconsin to offer salaries twice as large as average to attract leading scholars. In 1929 the University of Virginia received an anonymous donation of $6 million that fueled scholarships and fellowships. Today, state colleges like the University of Virginia and the University of California, Berkeley actually receive more revenue from private gifts and endowment income than from state appropriations. Private giving is now crucial to the fundraising of most state universities across the country. Indeed, even our nation’s federally funded military academies have come to count on donations to expand into important new areas or improve the quality of cadet life.

Within the circle of elite American schools to which it belongs, Stanford University is unique for being situated in the West. While that may not raise eyebrows today, there was a time when no one would think of equating America’s grand early colleges with a comparative newcomer set up far from the nation’s traditional centers of learning and culture. Railroad baron Leland Stanford created the university in 1885 as a memorial to his deceased son, and aimed from the beginning to “make it of the highest grade.” He donated money and three of his California ranch properties for the campus, and devoted himself to improvement and expansion until his death in 1893. His widow, Jane, continued to nurture the institution, but tax and legal battles flowing from her husband’s passing threatened to bankrupt both her and the university. At one point she journeyed to London to auction off her jewelry to secure the money necessary to keep the school open. In the end, Leland Stanford’s stipulation that the school not sell the land he had given it resulted in a bonanza, as California’s population boom drove up rents, bringing handsome financial returns to the university that enabled a rapid climb to high achievement..

Enoch Pratt arrived in Baltimore from a Massachusetts farm with nothing but $150 in his pocket, but he was frugal and industrious and eventually thrived in a variety of businesses. In 1882 he offered to give the city of Baltimore a major circulating library for free public use, along with 32,000 books, plus four branch libraries in different quarters of the city, and an endowment of $1,058,333 for upkeep and future expansion. Once built, the Pratt almost immediately became one of the most heavily used libraries in the country, and it thrived over the century and a quarter since. Andrew Carnegie described it in The Gospel of Wealth as the best such institution in the country, and he cited Pratt as his exemplar for his own nationwide library program which he launched the year Pratt’s main library opened. In fact, two decades after the initial opening of the Pratt Library, Carnegie donated a half-million dollars to Baltimore to allow the building of 20 additional branches—part of his wider campaign that paid for the erection of more than 2,800 libraries (see the 1881 Carnegie Library entry in our companion list of major achievements in Arts and Culture).

These were just two of the many American philanthropists who lifted American literacy and learning by donating important collections of books to the public. The grandfather of them all was Benjamin Franklin, who in league with a group of friends incorporated the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first such entity in British North America, in 1731 (see separate entry following). In 1814, Thomas Jefferson offered his large and impossible-to-replicate library to Congress for official use after the British burned Washington. Judah Touro gave the American West its first public collection of books when he offered to put up the Touro Free Library in the city of New Orleans in 1824, and at his death he helped endow the famous Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island. With a $50,000 gift and 30,000 books “of permanent value,” financier Joshua Bates launched the Boston Public library, whose main reading room remains named for him. John Jacob Astor gave $400,000 to New York in 1848 to establish a library, later combined with the $2 million collection of James Lenox, and money bequeathed by Samuel Tilden, to form the New York Public Library—which continues to be a private, non-governmental charity funded by a mix of philanthropic and city contributions.. With a $50,000 gift and 30,000 books “of permanent value,” financier Joshua Bates launched the Boston Public library, whose main reading room remains named for him.

These gifts transformed libraries, over the course of just a couple generations, from luxuries possessed by the wealthy to institutions of self-improvement available to all. Today there are more than 16,000 public libraries in the U.S., and they are visited a billion and a half times every year.

Amid massive changes in Americans’ educational needs in the late nineteenth century, the teaching profession came under scrutiny. Skilled educators were in short supply, and many observers were questioning how teachers were trained. Philanthropists undertook direct action. Perhaps the most significant act was Grace Dodge’s decision in 1880 to establish the Kitchen Garden Association. Though initially created to teach domestic skills to New York’s poor, several years later it would evolve into the New York College for the Training of Teachers, precursor to Teachers College at Columbia University. Dodge served as the first treasurer and provided crucial financial support. Teachers College took on a particular mission to properly educate the children of the poor, and it was influential. By 1900 one fourth of colleges and universities were providing some form of professional education for teachers, a fraction that rose as the twentieth century wore on.

American colleges had undergone much growth and change by 1876, but that year might be thought of as the U.S. inauguration of the German university model—featuring academic independence, a high degree of structure, and an emphasis on research. Johns Hopkins, an enterprising Baltimore businessman, founded his university then with a $7 million grant and his selection of Daniel Gilman as president. The new institution’s main departure was in putting priority on graduate research and education rather than undergraduate teaching. Hopkins’ original vision included both a university and medical school, and Gilman subsequently attracted some of the leading medical minds and scientists in the country. Years later, Harvard president Charles Eliot confessed that his university’s graduate school “did not thrive until the example of Johns Hopkins forced our faculty to put their strengths into the development of our instruction for graduates.” The new university also became inextricably entwined with its patron’s hometown. When the school fell on hard financial times, the people of Baltimore rallied to its aid. Twice before the end of the nineteenth century, the Baltimore business community saved the school after its railroad-heavy stock holdings bottomed out. And local giving extended far beyond financial emergencies. By 1902, new donations from Baltimoreans had surpassed the university’s original endowment. Johns Hopkins now ranks as Maryland’s largest employer.

Until the end of the Civil War it was against the law in Southern states to teach even the alphabet to any African American. Thus only about 5 percent of slaves, and a little more than half of free blacks, including those in the North, could read. As soon as the war was over, philanthropic groups launched multiple efforts to overcome this lack of education.

For instance, the Freewill Baptist Home Mission Society sent organizers and funds to the Shenandoah valley where thousands of released slaves had congregated after the fighting. Rev. Nathan Brackett realized that the only way to reach the large number of potential students was to train African Americans to become teachers and then disperse them across the South. He began to transform a grammar school he was operating in Harper’s Ferry into a teaching college.

The president of Bates College learned of that effort at about the same time a Maine philanthropist named John Storer approached him and offered $10,000 to create a college anywhere in the South that would be open to all races and both sexes. The connection was made, and Storer’s gift was matched by funds from Baptist churches and the state of West Virginia. By 1868, Storer Normal School was minting African-American teachers—the only such operation in all of West Virginia.

The institution gradually evolved into Storer College, offering industrial training as well as teacher instruction. It closed in 1956 after the U.S. Supreme Court declared an end to segregated education. But thanks to it and other philanthropically supported efforts, black illiteracy had by then been driven down to 8 percent.

After the Civil War, the American South was badly battered, and improving its economic and social prospects became a central part of repairing our national union. Religious groups were the first to offer aid, including schooling for children. Then philanthropists outside of church structures took up the cause of boosting educational opportunities for young Southerners of all stripes.

Baltimore banker George Peabody took the lead. Barely a year and a half after the bullets had stopped flying, in early 1867, Peabody established America’s very first formal foundation, the Peabody Education Fund, with a gift of $2.1 million and a charge to raise the standard of schooling throughout the South without racial considerations. The fund ultimately distributed about $4 million across the region, building schools, training teachers, and offering scholarships for higher education. One of its lasting achievements was in creating a high-quality college for teachers at Vanderbilt University, which sprinkled instructors throughout the southern states for generations, right up to the present. The Peabody Fund was also important for inspiring others to take up the cause of upgrading the schooling available to everyday Southerners. A half dozen very active endowments, often working in close collaboration, eventually showered money, buildings, expertise, and encouragement on Southern education for several decades, strengthening and creating institutions at the primary, secondary, and college levels alike. (See 1907 entry.)

In addition to helping heal egregious regional sores, the Peabody Fund was a leader in what education historian John Thelin calls “long-distance philanthropy”—moving dollars out of the donor’s home area to locations of special need. The fund was also the first U.S. philanthropy to focus on one social problem. And it was a pioneer in relying heavily on trustees to guide its giving, and in other operational aspects that later became common in modern philanthropy. George Peabody was thus a powerful influence not only on other givers in his place and time, like Enoch Pratt and Johns Hopkins, but also on later American philanthropists like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Gates, all of whom have cited the generous and thoughtful Baltimorean as a model and inspiration, causing historians to refer to him as “the father

Education philanthropy over the first century of American history was focused predominantly on young men. Then Matthew Vassar got it into his head to try something new. He resolved to use his fortune, accumulated from a self-made career in business, to establish “a college for young women which shall be to them what Yale and Harvard are to young men.” Milo Jewett, a clergyman who had founded the Judson Female Institute in Alabama way back in 1839, encouraged Vassar, appealing “to his desire to serve mankind, his local pride, his Christian faith,” according to historian Merle Curti. At an 1861 meeting of the new college’s board of trustees, Vassar presented a tin box containing stock and bond certificates valued at $408,000, plus a deed to 200 acres near Poughkeepsie, New York. This gift, along with an additional $400,000 offered before his death, and continued support from the Vassar family, gave a powerful impetus to one of the world’s first women’s colleges offering a broad liberal education. Vassar’s donation also marked a new era in college philanthropy generally—which had previously relied on subscriptions from many donors, and now shifted toward major gifts from individuals.

Peter Cooper was born into a poor family, but even as a child he was inventing things—what may have been the world’s first washing machine, an innovative mower, different ways of making gelatin, a steam locomotive, a new type of iron smelting, and so forth. He studied, experimented, apprenticed himself, even hired tutors for personal instruction, always self improving. By his later years Cooper was one of the richest men in the United States. Yet he lived simply, putting most of his wealth into helping others. He particularly hoped to see people develop talents that were latent within them. Having had only one year of formal schooling himself, he nursed a lifelong desire to help “the mass of struggling humanity” grab onto education. As a vehicle for supporting self-improvement of this sort he founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1859, when he was 68.

The structure he erected to house the college was the first large building to be made of iron, an advance that greatly reduced the risk of fire and that was made possible by Cooper’s own invention of superior I-beams. Cooper opened the institution to women, blacks, and the working classes. Its success was so immediate that a near-riot occurred at the launch, as New Yorkers swarmed to register. Cooper’s son-in-law and business partner found it “incredible that there should be such a passion for learning among the toilers.”

It was central to Cooper’s vision that students should be able to attend at no cost, and thanks to his $600,000 founding gift and subsequent endowments, the college eventually offered full-tuition scholarships for all students. From his own personal experience Cooper knew that many students hoping to rise in society would face job and family demands that competed with their ability to study—so the school offered night classes, and kept its library open to all comers until 10 p.m. every evening.

In addition to providing technical skills that would boost prosperity (the engineering school remains one of the premier organizations in its field), Cooper wanted to foster artistic expression that could spark broader creativity. One early student was the sculptor Auguste Saint-Gaudens. Today, the schools of art and architecture at Cooper Union are among the most selective in the country, with alumni who have accumulated 18 Guggenheim fellowships, nine Chrysler Design Awards, and three Thomas Jefferson Awards for Public Architecture.

A surprising number of colleges were founded in the early American West, but most struggled to find a financial footing. The periodic economic panics took a toll on educational philanthropy and even voided pledges undertaken during boom years. The successes of schools like Transylvania University and Western Reserve, though, attracted a stream of additional entries.

Congregationalists and Presbyterians wanting to support the expansion of Western colleges teamed up in 1843 to found the Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education. The society maintained a rolling list of schools it supported, adding a new one in need whenever a school could be moved off the list after gaining a measure of financial security. Its board was based in the East, where each of the supported schools would send a fundraising agent who the society would help make appeals to local pastors and parishes. Money raised by the agents was put into a common fund and disbursed in previously agreed percentages.

By linking frontier schools with sympathetic religious congregations in the East, the society enabled colleges to weather the inherent challenges of starting new institutions in raw lands, and the difficulties of an unsteady economy. By the time of its merger with another organization in 1874, the society had raised more than a million dollars in small contributions to sustain 18 colleges throughout the West.

Oberlin College was built on a strong opposition to slavery, and committed its intellectual resources to helping end the practice. When various financial downturns buffeted its home region in Ohio, Oberlin’s moral mission helped the college find financial saviors. Founded in 1833 and opened to students of all races, as well as women, the college had brought Charles Finney and other prominent abolitionists onto its faculty. These principled hires attracted many donors, like New York businessman Arthur Tappan, who gave the school $17,000, plus funds to cover Finney’s salary. Another group of New Yorkers committed more than $4,000 to fund eight professorships. The Financial Panic of 1837 almost scuttled Oberlin along with other colleges, but the school sent representatives to England, where $30,000 was collected from abolitionists in less than a year, putting the facility back on firm financial footing.

Born in France in 1750, Stephen Girard was a financier who immigrated to the United States nearly penniless and then made his name as a businessman and philanthropist of renown. By the time of his death in 1831 Girard was the wealthiest man in America, and he left almost all of his money to philanthropic causes. When a yellow-fever epidemic ravaged his adopted home city of Philadelphia he poured out personal funds to assist those in need, and personally nursed the sick. During the 1812 war with Britain he doctored the entire nation with crucial financial assistance.

His most lasting legacy came from several million dollars apportioned to establish and maintain a school in Philadelphia for “poor male white orphans,” many of whom lost their fathers in coal mining. Generations of additional funding for the school would be provided by rents from Girard’s real-estate holdings in and around Philadelphia, the sale of which he expressly prohibited. Having been largely cut out of its provisions, Girard’s family contested the will, which after long controversy was finally upheld by the Supreme Court in a landmark case that secured respect in the law for the intentions of donors.

Girard College finally opened in 1848, offering an interesting and practical mix of types of education, just as spelled out in some detail by its patron. It continues today as an independent boarding school serving 550 boys and girls in grades 1-12 who come from low-income families missing a parent. All costs of attending the institution—approaching $50,000 per year—are covered by the school’s endowment. And in a city where barely half of public-school students graduate, nearly all Girard students earn their high-school degree.

Western Reserve University, which sprang up in 1826 in a just-burgeoning section of Ohio, survived only through the sacrificial giving of frontier settlers. Western Reserve was not supported by a generous benefactor, as would become increasingly common in education philanthropy as the nineteenth century wore on. Rather, it was a broad base of farmers who committed their small contributions and, more often, their services to the fledgling educator. In one case a local man spent a whole winter hauling building materials to the school from a quarry that was ten miles away; in another, a farming family pledged an annual gift from the proceeds of their milk and egg sales, which they gave every year for a decade. This college built on grassroots philanthropy lives on today in its merged heir, Case Western Reserve University, a top independent research university located in Cleveland.

  • Merle Nash & Roderick Curti, Philanthropy in the Shaping of American Higher Education (Rutgers University Press, 1965)

Stephen Van Rensselaer was heir to one of the most valuable landholdings in the United States. Comprised of over a thousand farms, Rensselaer’s New York estate and the requirements of its maintenance acquainted him with the need for efficiency and technical expertise in agriculture. Rensselaer had benefited from the best education his country had to offer, but in the years following his college graduation rapid economic development produced demands for practical skills not furnished by the classical curriculum provided by the leading American schools.

So Rensselaer turned his attention and his wealth to the promotion of more practical education. He funded the work of Amos Eaton, a prominent geologist and zoologist, and the relationship the men struck up laid the foundation for Eaton’s request the following year that Rensselaer support a school centered on instruction in the sciences. Thus emerged the Rensselaer School in 1824, an institution dedicated to “the application of science to the common purposes of life.” Stephen Van Rensselaer underwrote the college to the tune of $25,000 in its first decade. Under Eaton’s supervision, it grew quickly and within a few years was responsible for educating a remarkable number of the nation’s naturalists and engineers (for a period, a majority of all the engineers in the United States held a degree from the Rensselaer School). The college awarded the first civil-engineering degrees in the English-speaking world, offered the first courses in advanced agricultural studies, and led the shift from passive to hands-on learning in science education. The success of the Rensselaer model led to many other similar colleges, and the original continues to thrive in upstate New York as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In early nineteenth-century New York City, free primary education was largely the province of church-run charity schools. For families of means there was also the option of private schools maintained by individual teachers. While these two poles covered most of the city’s children, some worried that certain poor youngsters were falling through the cracks. Thus in 1805 a group of residents led by Mayor DeWitt Clinton formed the New York Free School Society to establish schools open to all at no charge. The Society aimed both to educate and “to inculcate the sublime truths of religion and morality contained in the Holy Scriptures” in an ecumenical way. The New York legislature incorporated the group but did not provide funding, so the Society depended on subscriptions by individual members. Mayor Clinton provided an inaugural gift of $200, but most donations did not exceed $25. In this way the society raised $6,501 in its initial year and opened its first Free School. Gifts from Colonel Henry Rutgers, a member of the State Board of Regents, allowed a second school to open. In exchange for educating the children of the city almshouse, the group was given another building and money for its repair. By 1814, the combination of private philanthropy and public cooperation sustained almost 800 students in free schools established by the society, and the growth continued in subsequent decades.

George Washington was not only “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He was also first in philanthropic support for higher education in the young Republic, providing the largest gift the nation had ever seen for such purposes. This benefaction was typical of Washington, who had been a generous giver, and most often an anonymous giver, throughout his life. Even when departing his considerable estate to lead the Continental Army against the world’s most powerful military, he left strict, detailed instructions of all the ways he expected his managers to continue the estate’s assistance to the needy.

Washington’s most consequential gift came in 1796 with a donation of one hundred shares of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, valued at about $20,000, to Liberty Hall Academy located in Lexington, Virginia. The contribution, at the time the largest in American history, prompted the trustees to rename their school Washington Academy. It prospers today as Washington and Lee University.

Washington’s early gift would be worth at least $20 million today, and it continues to underwrite a portion of each student’s tuition. Like the other founders who encouraged higher education (Jefferson and Madison at the University of Virginia, Hamilton at Hamilton College, Franklin at today’s University of Pennsylvania, etc.), Washington hoped education would deepen the attachment of Americans to the principles on which their young nation was founded. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” declared Jefferson, “it expects what never was and never will be.”

In the early years of the American republic our population erupted over the heights of the Allegheny Mountains, starting the long national journey to the Pacific. Unlike their worldly possessions, the settlers of our frontier could not pack their schools for the move; they knew fresh educational institutions would have to be built from scratch. Persuading fellow Americans to donate to institutions of learning in the sparsely peopled Western territories would be a necessity. The first college west of the Alleghenies, established in 1780, was Kentucky’s Transylvania University, and private donors came through generously on its behalf. By 1795, when the university was relocated to Lexington, it was a respected institution. Transylvania (Latin for “across the woods”) educated 36 governors, 50 senators, and 101 congressmen, and its wide base of donors demonstrated the willingness of Americans to support fellow citizens working to improve themselves, even when they had no fraternal or geographic tie.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, American libraries were limited to small collections of books in private homes, or at colleges and seminaries, of which there were only a handful. Even middle-class people had very limited access to books. And the range of books seldom went beyond the core curriculum of theology and classics that dominated American higher education, many of them written in Latin rather than English. Thus when Philadelphia’s Junto, a “club for mutual improvement” created by Benjamin Franklin, started a book service, it did more than create the first public library in North America. It charted a new course in general availability of reading materials.

The dues of Junto members were put toward the purchase of books. But those books were not kept exclusively for the private consumption of club members—the collection was also opened to the public. Books could be picked out, returned, or exchanged any Saturday from 4-8 p.m. This created access to books that most Philadelphians would otherwise have no hope of ever seeing, much less an opportunity to read.

Junto subscriptions were thus supporting a new form of charity, one that resonated with Franklin’s belief in the equalizing power of diffused knowledge. This circulating library’s success inspired similar efforts in other American cities during the 1740s. In Philadelphia, the Library Company continues to operate today as a nonprofit lending library, much as it did in the 1700s.

The endowed professorship—an educational post funded over a long period of time by the earnings from an initial gift—is among the signal accomplishments of U.S. educational philanthropy. The pervasiveness of the endowed chair in the U.S. today makes it easy to assume that the practice must be common everywhere. Actually the institution is rare outside of America, where it took root long before we were even a country.

Thomas Hollis, a wealthy merchant and Baptist from London, wanted to express his gratitude for the good treatment Baptists had received in Boston. So in 1721 he gave funds to Harvard University to found the Hollis Chair of Divinity with a salary of £80 per year for its occupant. The gift also included money to offset administrative expenses, to increase the size of the student body, and to support “ten scholars of good character, four of whom should be Baptists, if any such were there.”

Hollis’s gift was the largest Harvard had received from a single individual. Five years later he established another professorship, the chair of mathematics and experimental philosophy. All told, Hollis’s gifts eventually topped £6,000, a staggering amount for the time.

The endowed professorship spread rapidly in the U.S. and became an increasingly popular way for donors to support institutions of higher education—undergirding the spectacular rise of American colleges and universities to their current position of international preeminence.

  • Nathan Wood, History of the First Baptist Church of Boston (Ayer, 1990)

There were about 1,500 African-American slaves living in New York City at the beginning of the 1700s, nearly all illiterate and intellectually degraded. Elias Neau, a French Huguenot who had found asylum in New York after being persecuted, imprisoned, and driven out of his native France for his Protestant religion, was moved by his faith to aid slaves and native Americans in his new city. He asked the Church of England and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to support him in opening a school for these two neglected populations. They agreed.

In the beginning, Neau was only permitted to visit slaves from house to house at the end of their work day. Eventually he got permission to open a classroom on the upper floor of his home. His students would arrive, and all would kneel and pray Christian appeals which Neau taught them for the first time. Then Neau would instruct for about two hours. Students and teacher would sing a psalm to close and then pray again. On Sundays, students and teacher would meet again for instruction in the steeple of Trinity Church. In the afternoon the church rector would teach them, and baptize those he considered ready for that rite. By 1708, Neau had 200 black pupils.

In 1712 there was a slave riot in New York resulting in murders and fires, and Neau’s school was criticized by outraged residents, though only one of his students had been involved. After a period of laying low, the school was again opened, protected by the church and encouraged by the governor. The faithful Neau continued to lead it until his death in 1722. Then a series of other missionaries, schoolmasters, and pastors extended his effort up to the era of independence. A 1764 report back to the funders of the school at the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel recorded that “not a single black” instructed and baptized through the school “had turned out badly or in any way disgraced his profession.” This encouraged additional support for schools assisting African Americans and Indians in other places.

  • James Anderson, History of the Church of England in the Colonies (Rivingtons, 1856) volume III, pp. 327-332

Harvard University conducted what is considered to be America’s first recorded fund drive when it launched an appeal in 1643 for donations to build up its new college. A gift from Ann Radcliffe allowed the establishment of its first scholarship fund. All told, the effort raised £500 and was deemed a “great success.” The next year, four of the New England colonies recommended that each resident family contribute a peck of wheat or a shilling in cash to support the nascent college in their midst. For over a decade, these voluntary donations, known as the “college corne,” supported Harvard’s entire teaching staff, plus a dozen students.

This was a new development in higher education. Instead of relying on the crown or the church or the state, financial responsibility for training up the next generation of leaders and producers would be spread across a community, relying on private individuals willing to share their abundance. By 2014, 42 American colleges were in the midst of fundraising campaigns that had a goal of raising at least a billion in private donations—reflecting the extraordinary role of philanthropy in building and maintaining the excellence of college education and research in the U.S.

Education philanthropy in the United States is much older than our country. The New College was founded in 1636 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and renamed in 1639 after a young minister from Charlestown named John Harvard left his library and half of his estate to the fledgling school upon his death. The ensuing century saw the rise of numerous privately supported schools that would train the religious, political, and commercial leaders of a nation striving toward independence: the College of William & Mary (1693), King William’s School (1696, which evolved into St. John’s College), Yale College (1701), King’s College (1746, reopened after the Revolution as Columbia University), College of New Jersey (1747, eventually Princeton University), the Academy of Pennsylvania (1749, later known as the University of Pennsylvania). Beginning almost a century and a half before we existed as a nation, America’s tradition of faithful education philanthropy dedicated to the common good helped establish the foundations for our success as the world’s first modern democracy.

Arts & Culture

Private philanthropy has created and continues to sustain America’s culturally rich and artistic activities.


More philanthropic donations are channeled to education than any other sector except religion.

Local Projects

An overwhelming percentage of American philanthropy takes place locally – bounty sharing among neighbors.

Medicine & Health

Medical philanthropy has a long history, from charity hospitals to the development of life-saving therapies.

Nature, Animals & Parks

National parks, urban green spaces, zoos and aquariums, and wildlife protections have been created by private givers.


Americans have built a reputation as charitable neighbors, providing assistance beyond their own borders.


Fighting poverty is one of the oldest charitable imperatives and requires tackling the sources that lead to it.

Public-Policy Reform

Donating money to modify public thinking and government policy has become a constructive branch of philanthropy.


Religious giving is a pillar of belief and conformity with divine intentions, expanding faith and bringing enlightenment.