Winter 2015 – Briefly Noted

A Secret Santa. Disaster giving. Taxing church attendance. Adopt a neighborhood.

Laying Away Treasure

Many Americans were charmed when, a couple weeks before Christmas, an anonymous lady walked into a Toys R Us store in Bellingham, Massachusetts, and paid off the remaining layaway balances of 150 families. Described as a “bubbly, older woman” living in the area, she gave the store manager a hug and a $20,000 check to close all the accounts. She wasn’t the first such angel—in 2013 a Florida man spent about the same amount at a local Walmart paying off the balances of strangers.


An anonymous donor got into the spirit of Christmas by paying off layaway balances. (ivanstar /

Some of the Bellingham beneficiaries were interviewed by the local paper. Linda, who had only $9 when she went into the store to hold some toys for her two boys, had a remaining balance of just $50, “but to me that’s a lot of money, and that someone would go and do that gave me chills.” An elated Diane Brewer said the gift meant she wouldn’t have to work extra shifts during the holiday to pay for her child’s presents.

Some other beneficiaries took the counsel of the man born on Christmas day who said “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys.” They announced they were taking the funds they had expected to pay on their store balance and donating them to charity.

Port in a Storm

When a disaster hits, Americans are eager to open their wallets to help. Unfortunately they get lots of chances. In a typical recent year there were 300 major natural calamities worldwide, causing 10,000 deaths and $180 billion in damages. Yet donors often have no clear idea of what happens to their contributions or whether they are used in the best ways possible.

Recently, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy teamed up with Foundation Center to try to help the major donors who often lead disaster recoveries improve the targeting of their help. Their 2014 report, Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy, looks at 884 grants totaling $111 million made by foundations like Gates, Cargill, Rockefeller, Moore, Lilly, and Hilton that are among the most bountiful disaster-relievers.


Delivering clean water to Haitians affected by Hurricane Sandy. (Logan Abassi / MINUSTAH)

Funded by Lori Bertman and the Pennington Foundation, the report looked at 2012 disasters from Hurricane Sandy to droughts, avalanches, earthquakes, monsoons, and typhoons worldwide. The broader categories included not only natural disasters, such as weather emergencies, but also manmade accidents and complex humanitarian emergencies.

The majority of this funding was for natural disasters. Almost half was given in relief efforts, with the rest going to things like recovery, reconstruction, and preparedness. The report is part of a larger initiative to track disaster-response dollars. An online data platform will be launched in late 2015, adding more “tools to the toolbox” of foundations that want to act in response to dire human need.

Church Tax

Since 2012, Germany has made giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, a legal mandate. The government acts as an intermediary for tithing. Contributions of around an additional 9 percent of income taxes are collected from Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, and other registered believers and used to finance the activities of their church or synagogue. Refusal to pay the tax can cause churchgoers to be denied communion and other rites, even funerals. Not only church and state but also commerce are now enmeshed in Germany: a new twist to the law has banks actively investigating the religious affiliations of their customers in order to levy the corresponding tax on their accounts.

Clergy of participating denominations lobbied heavily for the law before its passage. Facing declining congregations, they saw it as a steady way to secure their revenue. Ironically, if predictably, Germans are now cutting ties with their churches in droves in order to avoid the compulsory levy. Meanwhile, some Muslim leaders, whose congregations are not yet included in the program, are seeking to join it.

Some denominations opted out, not taking any money from the government, and exempting their members from the tax. “For us, it’s about building a living congregation, and the freedom to choose how you want to worship is very important to us,” one evangelical pastor told the Wall Street Journal.

Q&A with Harris Rosen


Harris Rosen (University of Central Florida)

Twenty years ago, hotelier and philanthropist Harris Rosen developed and funded a simple approach to improving the lives of families in the poor Orlando neighborhood of Tangelo Park. He provides home-based preschool for all two-, three-, and four-year-old children in the neighborhood, and full college or career scholarships to all students who graduate from Dr. Phillips High School. The results are impressive—high-school graduation rates have soared, crime rates are down, property values are on the rise, and new families are moving into the neighborhood. Could his model be replicated by other donors to improve life outcomes for families in troubled neighborhoods around the country? Rosen recently explored this question with Philanthropy; for more, see “The Tangelo Park Model for Transforming a Troubled Neighborhood.”

Q: Why did you devote yourself to this one neighborhood?

A: Throughout my life—from my childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to college, to the Army, to the acquisition of my first hotel and more—I’ve been blessed with more than I could have ever dreamed about. I wanted to say “Thank you, God,” and “Thank you, America.”

I decided to find an underserved neighborhood where many of the youngsters aren’t thinking about high school, college, or a career, and help them get a good education. I found Tangelo Park, a small Orlando neighborhood of about 800 families. Back then, it was one of the worst areas in the state—drug trafficking, prostitution, unsafe streets, and high-school graduation rates of less than 50 percent.

I first thought about funding a college scholarship program, but quickly realized that wouldn’t be much help alone given the high-school dropout rate. A friend advised me to reach the kids while they were young. We decided to offer free preschool for all neighborhood kids between two and four, and free vocational school or college.

Q: How did you introduce your idea to the community?

A: I reached out to the neighborhood association head and the principal of the elementary school, and asked if they would invite everyone to a community meeting. Word traveled fast that there was some crazy guy offering free college scholarships to all the neighborhood kids, so by the time the meeting came around, the community center was packed.

First we would create preschool learning centers in neighborhood homes. I promised to cover the cost of refurbishing the homes to provide a dedicated area for the kids to eat, play, learn, and engage. The homeowner/caregiver would be trained, certified, and paid to teach and care for the kids. I would also cover all the costs associated with the center’s operation—kids’ lunches, computer, toys, etc.

On the college end, any child accepted into a Florida two- or four- year public school or vocational program would receive a full scholarship, including books and travel. The place went crazy—lot of hugs, lot of thanks.

Q: Can you share some of the outcomes you’ve witnessed?

A: Since that time, 250 youngsters from the neighborhood have gone to college; the elementary school has been designated an “A”-rated Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test school for five of the past seven years (one of only two or three low-income schools to have that top rating). Graduation rates, which were below 50 percent when we started, are now close to 100 percent. More than half of the youngsters go to college. The others go to community college, vocational training, or enlist in the military. Their graduation rates are well above the national averages.

The neighborhood is changing for the better. People are investing in and beautifying it. Home values have tripled. Instead of mass migration out we are seeing people move in. And crime is down. The sheriff recently told me that he refers to Tangelo Park as “an oasis,” with less crime there than in some affluent communities.

Q: That’s a lot of positive news coming out of one small community.

A: It’s all about developing lifelong expectations and helping families achieve them. We mentor the parents so they are comfortable doing homework with their
children, interacting with their kids’ teachers and principal, and encouraging their kids to go to school properly dressed and respectful. Many of the parents did not have good educational experiences themselves, so this is a big deal. But we are with them the whole time.

Q: Preschools are offered everywhere with varying degrees of success. What makes yours different?

A: There are fewer than six kids in each home preschool, operated by the homeowner whom we vet, train, and certify. In essence, they are very much like the moms of the 1950s who watched over all the neighborhood kids. The majority of our students enter elementary school on or above track.

Our preschool graduations are held at the church, complete with caps and gowns. I give out the diplomas and switch the tassel on their caps to the other side. That’s one of the magic moments. For some of the parents, it’s the first graduation they’ve ever attended. I tell them to get used to a string of future graduations and successes—elementary school, middle school, high school, and hopefully college.

This helped something else unexpectedly work out beautifully—because the schools are right in the neighborhood and the parents know the people who are taking care of their kids, many of the parents saw the opportunity to go back to school and further their own education.

If there was a program like Tangelo Park in every underserved neighborhood in America we would close prisons, build more colleges, and lift our economy in such a positive way. It would change America.

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