Values and Passion for Education Drive Simon-DeVos Prize Winner

Values and Passion for Education Drive Simon-DeVos Prize Winner

Oct 12, 2021 Brandon Millett

“Responsibility. Loyalty. Consideration.” Those are the words emblazoned on the back of the lunch hall at University School in Cleveland, Ohio, where Bill Oberndorf graduated high school 50 years ago.

He never forgot them.

“If you can latch onto some core values like those, and use them as your guardrails as you go through life, then you will have a positive outcome,” Oberndorf said. 

Those core values led Oberndorf to a successful career as an investor and philanthropist. He is chairman of the American Federation for Children and the American Federation for Children Growth Fund, the nation’s largest school choice advocacy and education organizations. He is also a generous supporter of the University of California San Francisco, a leading medical and research institution, and a number of Bay Area community groups including the YMCA of San Francisco, The Salvation Army and Tipping Point Community, a nonprofit that fights poverty. And these are just some of the many causes and organizations that Oberndorf and his family support around the country. 

Although he lives in San Francisco today, Oberndorf never forgot his roots, and the opportunity he received to attend University School in the first place. The all-boys private school was established in 1890 and has a long and celebrated reputation for providing an exceptional education in a community where “each boy is known and loved.” It boasts a diverse and impressive list of graduates, including famed economist Arthur Laffer, FitBit founder James Park, former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, and David E. Harris, the nation’s first African-American commercial airline pilot.

“My father died when I was 11. I was in sixth grade,” said Oberndorf. “We moved back to Cleveland. It was only because my grandparents saved money for us to be educated, that I was able to go to that school. Otherwise, we would not have been able to afford it.”

Oberndorf credits University School with changing the trajectory of his life. Armed with a top-flight high school education, Oberndorf continued to pursue academic excellence. He graduated from Williams College with a major in history, then earned his MBA from Stanford University. Next, it was time to choose a career. 

“I knew when I went to Stanford, I wanted to be an investor like my grandfather, but I had to figure out how I could do that. There just weren't very many opportunities at that time to become an investor,” he said. “Then I had the great good fortune to meet and have lunch with Warren Buffet. This was back when you could have lunch with Warren Buffet for free.” 

During that lunch, Oberndorf learned about value investing, that is, trading in undervalued assets with solid fundamentals. He decided his background as a history major could serve him well in this field. 

“I knew how to research, and I left that lunch confident I could use this skillset to become a research analyst,” he said.

That moment paved the way for Oberndorf to launch his own investment firm, SPO Partners, almost a decade later. By the time he retired in 2012, it was a $9 billion partnership.

As his business grew, Oberndorf considered how he might leverage his skills and resources to help others through philanthropy. He was especially interested in helping disadvantaged children find educational opportunities, which led Oberndorf back to a familiar place. 

His first move was to join University School as a trustee. It was there, during one of the school’s summer programs, Oberndorf made a startling discovery that would further focus his philanthropy.

“These were very hardworking kids, and they would say to me, ‘We’ve learned more here in the summer than we learn all year long when we are back in our public schools in San Francisco,’ and I asked myself, ‘What is going on here? How could that be?’ Then I educated myself on the issue.”

Oberndorf came to the conclusion that, in a climate where the public school system was rife with challenges, students needed other education options. 

“I benefited from choice, and I knew nothing would change unless kids who had no choice, had choices,” he said.

Oberndorf pursued the cause with vigor. Soon, he was introduced to another business and philanthropic legend, John Walton. Together, the two worked tirelessly to build the school choice movement from a small group of investors into a major national force.

“He was such an incredible man. John and I had the same view, that you had to create a competition in K-12 if you were ever going to improve student outcomes.”

One of the products of the Oberndorf-Walton partnership is the American Federation for Children (AFC), a merger of a number of predecessor organizations, which empowers families, especially lower-income families, with the freedom to choose the best K-12 education for their children. The organization accomplishes this mission by electing education reformers, passing high quality education reforms and advocating for families, telling their stories and informing them of their education options. 

Oberndorf credits the organization with changing the trajectory of students’ lives, and AFC points to research that shows students who participate in school choice programs have higher test scores and better outcomes. Oberndorf cites one “wonderful example” of a disadvantaged student who benefited from school choice: Denisha Merriweather.

Merriweather struggled in public school as a young girl, failing third grade twice. Her fortunes changed after she received a tax credit scholarship to a private school, where she graduated with honors. Today, she is one of the country’s most ardent supporters of school choice, and coincidentally, now serves as AFC’s Director of Public Relations and Content Marketing.

In addition to his work in K-12 education, Oberndorf is also a strong supporter of higher education and research institutions. He served as chairman of the board of overseers at the University of California San Francisco, one of the nation’s leading medical and research institutions, and helped raise more than $6.2 billion for the university, exceeding the fundraising goal by $1 billion. Oberndorf’s family foundation also donated $25 million to the university’s school of psychiatry to accelerate the search for the causes of neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders and to develop more effective treatments. 

In addition to this support, Oberndorf funds scholarships for students at his alma mater, Stanford University. His help for these students extends beyond funding their education, a point that’s evident in Oberndorf’s description of a phone call from one Stanford scholarship recipient, Sheck Mulbah.

“He called me one day and said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I got a job at Citibank this summer and I don’t know what to wear!’”

Together, the two went suit shopping in San Francisco. Soon thereafter, Oberndorf introduced Mulbah to Sandy Weill, the former chairman of Citibank. Mulbah ultimately earned a job offer to become a commercial banker with the company.

“With these scholarship recipients, we stay in touch, we become friends, and it’s really rewarding,” said Oberndorf.

When asked what advice he would give to a new philanthropist, Oberndorf suggested it’s these friends you find along the way that make it all worthwhile. 

“Make giving your money away a joyful experience. Don't get so wrapped up in it that you don't really enjoy the process,” said Oberndorf. “Get close enough to some of the programs you’re supporting to actually meet people who are benefiting from them. If you get too far removed from them, you may never understand the important, positive impact of your philanthropy.”

On Thursday, Oct. 14, Bill Oberndorf will receive Philanthropy Roundtable’s prestigious Simon-DeVos Prize for Philanthropic Leadership. For more than 15 years, this Prize has honored influential philanthropists who have shown exemplary leadership through their own charitable giving and whose work has advanced the principles of personal responsibility, resourcefulness, volunteerism, scholarship, individual freedom, faith in God and helping people to help themselves. The purpose of the Prize is to highlight the power of philanthropy and inspire others to support charities that achieve results. 

Oberndorf’s decades-long support of school choice, his dedication to helping young people and the disadvantaged, and his commitment to improving his local community make him a fitting recipient of this Prize, which includes a $200,000 award that is payable to the charity of his choice. Philanthropy Roundtable will present the Simon-DeVos Prize during its annual meeting in Colorado Springs.

“I just feel that I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to help others, and to have the credibility to get others to help, too,” Oberndorf said.

Bill Oberndorf will split the award between two organizations, AFC and University School, with the latter donation dedicated to marketing a “merit-based” scholarship program for 40 students. The Oberndorfs funded the scholarship program earlier this year with a $25 million donation, which represents the largest donation in the school’s history.

Thanks to Bill Oberndorf’s generosity, these students will be given the same opportunity he was once given 50 years ago — to receive an education from one of the nation’s exceptional private schools, to embrace the values of “responsibility, loyalty and consideration” that still adorn the University School lunch room wall, and to build an incredible future for themselves and for others they choose to help along the way.

Learn more about the Simon-Devos Prize here