Briefly Noted

Schools need better teaching, not more money: Bill Gates. Celebrity philanthropy fizz. Bureaucracy-ridden sluggards.

Politics and education reform

When Bill Gates spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in March, he noted that early in their philanthropic years he and his wife Melinda zeroed in on two causes. One they considered the root of the greatest inequity worldwide: health. The other was the largest cause of inequity here at home: education. In his remarks, though, the billionaire marveled at how money alone cannot fix education woes, citing Washington, D.C.’s lavish school funding (currently approaching $20,000 per student) in the midst of floundering schools. “There is no correlation between the amount spent and the excellence that comes out,” said Gates. Having realized this, the Gates Foundation spent three years looking closely at the mechanics of teaching. “Teachers get almost no feedback. They get almost no sense of, ‘OK, I’m good at this and I should share that with other people.’ Or ‘I’m not very good at this, and therefore I should learn from other people,’” explained the founder. “We took 20,000 hours of video and looked at various measures” of successful instruction. At the end of this massive project the foundation encouraged school districts to apply scientific evaluations to teachers every year, rewarding those whose students succeed, while offering warnings and training to those whose students lag. Now the hard-won findings need to be made a reality in schools. Compared to the Gates Foundation work on international health, the technical and economic obstacles are comparatively small. Yet politics makes progress difficult. “It’s tough,” stated Gates, “because when we invented the malaria vaccine, no school board gets to vote to uninvent it.”

Bill Gates on education reform. (Masaru Kamikura/CC 2.0)

Alignment of the stars

Celebrity philanthropy, even if well-meaning, can be rich with pratfalls and posturing. In 2007, actor Brad Pitt founded the charity Make It Right to build eco-friendly houses for low-income residents of New Orleans who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. Ecologically trendy turned out to be economically troubled, however, with the average cost per home soaring beyond $400,000. That in turn made it impossible for the nonprofit to stick to its goal of selling the dwellings only to residents who had lived in the poor Ninth Ward before the storm. Recently the organization learned that the glass-infused wood used to build stairs and decks on the houses without the usual decay-preventing chemicals has already started to rot, long before its promised 40-year lifespan. Planet-friendly Make It Right is thus in a bind, illustrating the classic aphorism that good intentions aren’t enough to solve problems.

Elsewhere in the celebrity sphere, actress Scarlett Johansson found that, after eight years as an ambassador for Oxfam, the international hunger charity had declared her persona non grata. Her crime? An alliance with SodaStream, the soft-drink company that has a factory in the West Bank, where Israeli-run enterprises are boycotted by Oxfam. Rather than quitting the company, Johansson declared she was quitting the charity. The factory might actually be “a model for some sort of movement forward in a seemingly impossible situation,” she suggested to the U.K.’s Observer. As SodaStream’s CEO told the BBC, “We’re giving livelihood to 500 Palestinians who feed 5,000 people, who will have no other jobs. Throwing them into unemployment is not what’s going to bring peace to this area.”

He did it his way

Robert Wilson, who passed away at the end of last year, was spectacularly generous, and a free thinker in more ways than one. He gave away $700 million of the $800 million he earned on Wall Street to causes like conservation and Catholic schools—whose efficacy he admired, though he was an atheist. (See our profile in the Spring 2010 issue of Philanthropy.) But when Wilson was asked to sign the Giving Pledge, his scrappy side emerged in a blunt exchange with Bill Gates. “Your ‘Giving Pledge’ has a loophole that renders it practically worthless, namely permitting pledgees to simply name charities in their wills,” Wilson wrote in e-mails later published by online outlet Buzzfeed. “I have found that most billionaires or near billionaires hate giving large sums of money away while alive and instead set up family-controlled foundations to do it for them after death. And these foundations become, more often than not, bureaucracy-ridden sluggards.… I’m going to stay far away from your effort.” Gates tried again, saying he agreed with Wilson in many ways, and that indeed, people should think about giving while young. More politically incorrect heterodoxy ensued from Wilson: “When I talk to young people who seem destined for great success, I tell them to forget about charities and giving. Concentrate on your family and getting rich—which I found very hard work. I personally and the world at large are very glad you were more interested in computer software than the underprivileged when you were young. And don’t forget that those who don’t make money never become philanthropists. When rich people reach 50 and are beginning to slow down is the time to begin engaging them in philanthropy.”

Cycle of hope

When filmmakers came to Texas health care executive Jon Halbert to pitch a documentary about an unlikely cycling team in genocide-riven Rwanda, he and his wife Linda were hooked. “It’s become our passion, really,” Linda told Philanthropy. “Best million dollars I’ve ever spent,” Jon told the Dallas Morning News. The film, Rising from Ashes, follows the birth of the team, coached by haunted cycling legend Jonathan “Jock” Boyer, and its standout star, Adrien Niyonshuti, who lost more than 60 members of his family to the 1994 massacre. The team members hail from both parties to the conflict—“all sides, all faiths, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, from all walks of life,” Linda says, noting that their united front sends the message to others, “If they can do this, so can we.” Now the Halberts hope the movie will be equally powerful. After racking up awards on the festival circuit, the documentary attracted audiences across the U.S. who wanted to do more than just watch. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘It’s not over,’” says producer Greg Kwedar. With $250,000 in seed money from the Halberts, the filmmakers established the Rising from Ashes Foundation to hold more screenings, support the athletes, bankroll cyclists in other African countries, create the first all-African team to take on the Tour de France, and fund Niyonshuti’s Cycling Academy to get Rwandan kids involved in the sport. “We found an opportunity to rebrand a country by doing a film,” Jon says. “To leverage that amount of money to help 13 million people…. To us it was a no-brainer.”

Adrien Niyonshuti, Rwanda’s cycling star. (Ryan Scheer)

Media Fortunes Offer Media Aid

In this issue of Philanthropy, you’ll read stories about how donors are seeking many ways to bolster news reporting today—at a moment in history when managers of the industry are finding it hard to make ends meet. But in decades past journalism bestowed many a fortune on newspapermen and publishers, and today some of those fortunes are being recycled back into efforts to strengthen journalism and improve its craft. Three examples follow. Other press-derived charitable endowments funneling money into the media include the Robert R. McCormick, Donald W. Reynolds, Patterson, Park, and Triad foundations.

Digital Knights to the rescue

John and James Knight were not only brothers but also highly compatible business partners. “My uncle was the consummate editor, and my father was the nuts and bolts man,” says Marjorie Knight Crane, James’s daughter. The two men transformed the Ohio newspaper they inherited from their father in 1933 into a multimillion-dollar media empire known as Knight Ridder. They cared deeply about the field that made them wealthy.

“The Knight newspapers strive to meet the highest standards of journalism,” John told a group of businessmen in 1969. “We try to keep our news columns factual and unbiased, reserving our opinions for the editorial pages, where they belong.”

The Knight Brothers. (Knight Foundation)

The brothers’ fortunes—and respect for the power of the press—today undergird the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has become a leader in philanthropic giving to journalism. The foundation has so far invested more than half a billion dollars in the field, funding everything from scholarships for aspiring reporters, to mid-career training, to nonprofit startups in new media. Its current focus is helping the struggling news industry find equilibrium in the digital era.

The Knight News Challenge, started in 2006, grants millions to innovators using electronic tools to make news sharing easier, as a way to improve government openness and public understanding. Past winners include the Oyez Project, which provides audio recordings of court arguments, transcripts, and summaries of complicated decisions, to make legal rulings more accessible to reporters and citizens.

The foundation’s support for innovation in journalism is something president Alberto Ibargüen thinks the Knight brothers would rally behind. “They believed so strongly in new technology that there is no doubt in my mind they would be at the forefront of experiments with digital media today,” he says. The brothers tried sending electronic facsimiles of newspapers to the homes of subscribers as early as 1947, and poured hefty sums into early versions of online news delivery in the early 1980s. “They were simply not afraid of change or of the future.”

Giving across generations

At age six, in turn-of-the-century Kansas, Eugene Collins Pulliam sold his first newspaper. Later, as a budding reporter, he nabbed one of his first scoops by sneaking onto an unlocked railroad car to interview William K. Vanderbilt.

The elder and younger Eugene Pulliams bracket a young Russ.

Pulliam eventually purchased and ran more than 50 newspapers, including his flagships, the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republic. The magnate died in 1975, but that was not the end of family contributions to journalism. His son, Eugene Smith Pulliam,  became publisher of the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News. His granddaughter Myrta Pulliam won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 with a team of other reporters for a series on police corruption. Another granddaughter edited a local newspaper in Maine. His grandson writes a weekly column for the Star. Even some of his great-grandchildren now work in reporting (Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a correspondent for Religion News Service, appears on page 33).

In addition to continuing to work in journalism, family members have used philanthropy to enhance the field that made their patriarch so successful. In this they follow Eugene Collins himself, who set up a journalism scholarship at Ball State University, and paid for young foreign reporters to visit the United States. Pulliam’s grandchildren gave $5 million to support journalism studies at DePauw University, $5 million to the Newseum, and additional gifts to Butler University, Ball State University, and the Society of Professional Journalists (which their grandfather co-founded).

Granddaughter Myrta also helped start Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit aimed at improving the quality of watchdog reporting. Grandson Russ has given to the World Journalism Institute and the journalism program at Patrick Henry College. He thinks journalism and newspapers are growing even more ripe for philanthropic backing. “Higher education is not a business. There’s an element of philanthropy in it. I think journalism may go in that direction too, similar to a symphony.”

Relinking press and profit

Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger believed in the power of a free press. And he believed that the press had to make money in order to keep producing democracy-aiding journalism. So in his three decades as publisher of the New York Times, he expanded the paper’s advertising, diversified the company’s assets, and added new moneymaking feature sections to the Gray Lady.

It was this entrepreneurial spirit that his sisters, Marian, Ruth, and Judith, hoped to highlight when in 2005 they donated $8 million to journalistic projects to honor Arthur. Half of that went to create something entirely new and unique: a training program at Columbia University to give editors and media executives the business acumen they need to keep journalism profitable.

The Punch Sulzberger Program, as it is now called, offers selected fellows four weeks of intensive management classes at Columbia, followed by a year’s worth of one-on-one coaching from business experts. Fellows choose a “challenge” at their media company—a project requiring at least a year’s worth of work, but with attainable and measurable goals—and tackle it with the support of the program.

Siblings Judith and Punch Sulzberger (Vic DeLucia/New York Times)

So far more than 130 leaders at news organizations from the Boston Globe to ABC News to the Associated Press have jumped at the chance to participate. Eight editors and executives at the Christian Science Monitor came to the program starting in 2008, with their newspaper losing money and surviving on subsidies from the Christian Science Church. Their publication set a daring goal: to become the first national newspaper to cut its daily printed product and become a “web-first” publication. In its latest fiscal year, the Monitor posted its best financial performance in more than half a century.

The Sulzberger program is “sort of like a mini MBA,” says Monitor editor Marshall Ingwerson. “It really made me jump in with both feet, and focus on…asking this journalistic enterprise to work as a business.” The paper is now on track to cut off church subsidies by 2017, he says, and the website has more than quintupled its traffic since the beginning of the program.

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