Briefly Noted

Rags to riches in real life. Vets achieving independence. A pilgrimage to Israel for $500. Behind the scenes at Gettysburg. Leonard Leo's legal network. The power of small givers.

Rags to Riches in Real Life

Jessica Moore did not know who her father was until she was 13. As she grew up, her stepfather abused her and ultimately went to jail, which was both a relief and a burden, as it left the family financially precarious. Meanwhile, Jessica was dealing with a mysterious illness that took her out of school for months at a time and would not be correctly diagnosed for several years. Even when the rare autoimmune disorder was finally identified, there was no treatment for it. Facing chronic fatigue and pain, she waited tables up to 30 hours a week to boost the family income while she completed high school, clinging to the thought that some way, somehow, she had to go to college and attain her independence.

Nobody she knew well had gone to college. In her small Georgia community, even graduating from high school was often an achievement. But she wanted more. She got involved with science fairs and then research at a nearby lab, drawn to the subject as she tried to understand her own illness. She gained recognition for her work, and when it came time to apply for college, this set her apart.

“If you had told me a year ago that I would be at Harvard, studying abroad this summer in Venice for free, I would have laughed in your face,” she says. But a scholarship from the Horatio Alger Association allowed her to focus solely on her learning, opening a huge new world of opportunity for her.

Since 1984, the Horatio Alger Association has awarded more than $143 million in scholarships to students like Jessica, selected for their courage and tenacity in overcoming hardship. The association, founded in 1947, is made up of individuals who used hard work to overcome serious trials and achieve success. Members have included the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, businessman and donor Richard DeVos, surgeon Ben Carson, actor Denzel Washington, restaurateur Dave Thomas, justice Clarence Thomas, singer Reba McEntire, businessman Wayne Huizenga, hotelier Conrad Hilton, author Maya Angelou, and hundreds of other entrepreneurs, artists, and leaders.

A Horatio Alger enrollment is one of the highest American distinctions—“the biggest honor that I could ever imagine in my life,” said businessman and philanthropist Denny Sanford, who was inducted in 2016. Sanford’s mother died when he was four, and as a teen he tangled with the law. A second chance enabled him to go to college, and he went on to found one major company and reinvigorate another. His first philanthropy was to programs benefiting foster children, whose troubles he identified with. He is best known for over $1 billion in giving to medical research and a nonprofit health-care network serving his native Dakotas.

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He's succeeded in business, and stunned in philanthropy, but Denny Sanford says his biggest honor was receiving the Horatio Alger Award.

This year, Sanford made a record-breaking $30 million gift to the Horatio Alger Association’s scholarship fund, the single largest donation the group has ever received. In the spirit of this high-achievement, high-humility group, Sanford says he wanted to “remind students that if someone like me can overcome challenges to succeed, they can too.”

A Pilgrimage to Israel for $500

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” the second-century theologian Tertullian famously asked. For the Illinois-based Christian educational nonprofit Passages, the question is, what has Chicago to do with Jerusalem? And even more, what has Jerusalem to do with college towns across America?

This summer, Passages took 1,700 students to Israel to find out. With funding from donors including Steve Green and Paul Singer, in partnership with the Museum of the Bible and the Philos Project, by year’s end Passages will have sent more than 6,000 students on trips to study Christian roots in the Holy Land. Executive director Scott Phillips says the group hopes to send as many as 15,000 a year in the future.

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Passages does for young Christians what Birthright does for young Jews: connect them with the roots of their faith in the Holy Land.

Bringing students to Israel is a twofold mission, he says: to “strengthen Christian faith and identity in the next generation of Christian leaders,” and “to connect students to modern and vibrant Israel.” In practice, that means that for just $500 and some travel expenses young people can absorb ten intensive days of pilgrimage at Biblical sites, along with lectures on contemporary regional issues from often-disagreeing experts. “We’re honest with students. They know we think Israel’s a good place, but on the trip we are non-prescriptive, politically,” says Phillips.

Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project and a member of the Passages board, sees the trips as a chance to reconnect young Christians in America to the sources of their faith. “The Western world suffers from amnesia. We’ve forgotten where we’re from,” Nicholson said. “The West is the heir of both Athens and Jerusalem,” and it’s in Jerusalem “that we discover our true moral and ethical identity.”

For Assaf Boker, an Israeli tour guide who works with Passages, leading the organization’s trips is more than just another job. “I believe Passages and the Philos Project are key players in revolutionizing the way Jews and Christians connect. I want to be part of this.”

The program is still expanding rapidly, with new donors coming aboard, new initiatives to better involve Catholics, and plans to double the staff next year and open an office on the ground in Israel. And to make the trips more than just episodes of tourism, the organization is focusing on follow-up among participants. Phillips notes, “We really want to build an alumni community that will last through college, and beyond.”   

Micah Meadowcroft

Exciting Results from a Philanthropic Innovation

Readers of Philanthropy may remember that a few years ago, a dozen donors put up $15 million to launch a bold experiment aimed at fixing one of the most discouraging social problems in America—the explosion of prime-age workers living on disability benefits rather than supporting themselves and their families. Dependence on disability results in a low standard of living, and huge taxpayer costs, but the even more perverse effect is that beneficiaries end up with high rates of mental illness, addiction, family breakdown, and deteriorating physical health, due to their disconnection from the wholesome routines, social connections, and personal satisfactions of constructive work.

The philanthropically created Independence Project is focused on a particularly heartbreaking slice of the population on disability: young veterans. (For background on the project and the problem it addresses, see “Labeled Disabled” in the Summer 2015 issue of Philanthropy.) There is now a whole industry that convinces individuals leaving military service that many of their aches and pains are disabilities—with the tragic result that over 40 percent of all new veterans now file paperwork to get themselves classified as disabled. Just a small fraction of these individuals ever spent any time in a war zone, and only a very thin sliver were injured in combat.

The bottom line: today’s veterans tap into the disability system at about five times the rate of their brethren from World War II (where a much larger population actually came under fire). As a result, disability benefits to veterans will total $83 billion this fiscal year, a number that surges upward every season. Over the next 40 years, this will cost the public more than half a trillion dollars.

Worse, participation in work by prime-age (25-34 years old) male veterans has tumbled from 95 percent to 84 percent amidst this disability explosion. Some of our most impressive young people are retiring to a couch in their mom’s basement and a monthly check in the mail. Once classified as disabled, many of these men and women fall into a spiral of ever-increasing claims, ever-less work and social interaction, soaring depression, and dysfunction. Having poured themselves into convincing the V.A. that they are broken, they increasingly act broken.

And there is another set of victims: The relatively modest number of veterans seriously injured during their service to the country. These individuals have the highest claim on the nation for rehabilitation, support, and help in finding a new, productive life. But today’s disability system is so clogged with mass claims that backlogs now extend for years, budgets are stressed, rehab professionals are overwhelmed with minor complaints, and the injured fighters who ought to be the center of our attention sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

As an antidote to all of this, the donors organized by The Philanthropy Roundtable created the Independence Project to test a new program which turns our existing benefits system on its head. (For details, see “Rethinking Disability” in the Spring 2017 issue of Philanthropy.) Instead of offering just a lifetime of benefits to veterans with claims, it invests extensively in injured vets up front—providing them, just as they leave the military, with specialized job coaches, training, funds to purchase equipment or occupational credentials, even a temporary wage bonus on top of anything they earn—all to help them enter the workforce and discover the satisfactions of self-reliance. 

The first pilot results of this experiment, which is being executed by the nonprofit Hire Heroes USA, have just become available. The program is still being refined, and it will be about two years before final results begin to accumulate. Thanks to scientific support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, these results will include rigorous randomized-control comparisons to peer veterans within the standard V.A. disability system.

But already, the powerful outcomes among the first classes of volunteer participants are exciting interest. Disabled veterans who entered the Independence Project pilot were more than twice as likely, compared to other similarly disabled vets, to be employed (69 percent vs. 27 percent). Their incomes were much higher at every point of the economic spectrum. And disabled vets who went through this program reported initial annual salaries of $60,100, far above the national average for their demographic group. 
Rather than languishing as low-income wards of the state, it appears that injured veterans can be helped to thrive and stand proudly on their own two feet. 

A New Resting Place

This November there will be a new addition to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. It will be the resting place of Katharine Drexel, the philanthropist-turned-Catholic nun who became the second canonized saint from the United States.

Born into the immense wealth of the Drexel family in 1858, Katharine took her family’s French-Catholic faith, and its commitment to charity, seriously. Out of concern for Native Americans in the West she started a school in Santa Fe in 1887. As she expanded this effort with additional schools, she asked Pope Leo XIII to send missionaries to help run her Indian missions. He suggested that perhaps the best missionary would be the benefactress herself. In 1891 she took her vows and started, with 15 other women, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Negroes and Indians. Using Drexel’s money, they built and staffed schools for overlooked populations all across the country, including founding Xavier University in New Orleans, the first black Catholic higher-education institution in America. There is no official figure for how much Drexel gave to the order, but one estimate comes to about $500 million in today’s dollars.

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New efforts are underway to understand and spread the story of Katharine Drexel's sacrificial life and work.

Upon her death, Drexel’s body was interred at the motherhouse of her order in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. In 2016 the Sisters announced intentions to sell the motherhouse, including the shrine. The Connelly Foundation of Philadelphia donated funds to build a new tomb, as well as money for a communications program to promote Drexel’s life and work, including a documentary and lesson plans for teachers.

“With the new opportunity to honor Saint Katharine at the Cathedral, even more people will be exposed to her extraordinary life and example. It is our fervent hope that others will be inspired and continue her important work among Native Americans and African Americans,” says Reverend Dennis Gill of the Cathedral Basilica.

For more information about Katharine Drexel’s life, read her entry in the Hall of Fame of the Almanac of American Philanthropy

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Behind the Scenes at Gettysburg

Civil War battle reenactments are a complicated business. And perhaps none as complicated as at Gettysburg, the Pennsylvania town where a climactic three-day battle raged in 1863. Every year, thousands of reenactors pour in to camp, charge, and chew their way through one of history’s pivotal turns. Who organizes these proceedings? Coordinates water, toilets, and emergency services? Like much of the deepest culture in America, these gatherings are all about voluntary association and local control.

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Walking into the past at Gettysburg requires not only reenactors, but faithful community volunteers.

Back in 1995, Gettysburg residents had become fed up with some reenactors who were leaving litter, mud, unpaid bills, and “local carnage in their wake.” The gatherings were then attracting up to 30,000 reenactors and 50,000 spectators, overwhelming the 8,000 local residents. So members of the community formed the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee to improve the experience. Committee members are volunteers who take a week off work to manage logistics during the mass affair. In a typical year the committee relies on around 150 volunteers, but on a special anniversary the total of volunteers needed can stretch to 400.

The local helpers assist with basic needs like “wood, water, clean toilets, ice, emergency medical services, shuttles, traffic control, wildfire suppression, security.” They also enforce high historical standards within the reenactments. “A dirty musket is rarely, if ever, appropriate.” Modern contraptions like zippers and Velcro and safety matches are discouraged. “Women portraying soldiers in the ranks should make every reasonable effort to hide their gender.”

The volunteers also sell tickets for spectators, and the profits are donated to local historic-preservation groups. In this way, Gettysburgers are preserving precious heritage while protecting their current town.

Q&A with Leonard Leo

It’s been a big year for the Federalist Society. Dedicated to the belief that it is the duty of the judiciary to “say what the law is, not what it should be,” this network of conservative and libertarian lawyers, at some estimates over 70,000 individuals, has seen increased participation at alumni events, vibrant student chapters on law-school campuses around the country, and rising consumption of its publications and video content.

But what’s more remarkable is what the “citizen lawyers” trained up by the group have done outside its aegis. “Federalists” are now serving in significant numbers throughout our judiciary and in federal and state governments.

Leonard Leo knows this didn’t happen by chance. The longtime executive vice president of the Federalist Society has spent his career spotting and developing legal talent for public service. And he’s been a “citizen lawyer” himself, taking leaves of absence to advise Presidents Donald Trump and George W. Bush on their Supreme Court nominations.

Before his latest leave, Philanthropy met with Leo to hear more about the Federalist network, get his latest impressions on law-school ideology, and learn how this donor-funded charity with less than 50 staff could have such an outsized impact. 

Q: What are the Federalist Society’s goals?
A: The Federalist Society was founded on the idea that there is an inextricable relationship between the structure of our Constitution, which ensures limits on government power, and the preservation of human freedom and personal responsibility. If we don’t protect the structural features of our Constitution—the separation of powers, federalism, checks and balances, and so forth—there is no freedom. You can have a bill of rights. You can have a charter of freedoms. But if you don’t have very discernible limitations on government power, and ways of enforcing those limits, those are just parchment barriers.

The idea behind the Federalist Society was to revive the idea that there needs to be a devotion to the structural Constitution as a means of preserving freedom over the long haul.

We’re educational—we are promoting this ideal in the legal community and in our nation’s law schools. The Federalist Society builds an infrastructure of talent around the country who can serve in positions of influence in law and public policy. It’s really a collection of individuals who are brought together by a common interest in, and devotion to, the Constitution.

We rely heavily on individual initiative and entrepreneurial spirit. We call it “citizen lawyers”—lawyers who are going to be active beyond their daily practices. That’s how we add value to society.

Q: How has the Federalist Society affected ideological diversity in law schools?
A: The Federalist Society’s presence now on almost every accredited law-school campus has had a discernible impact on the academic environment. First of all, the programming we do on campus provides education. It’s a university without walls. It’s a way of instilling in people an appreciation for principles they might not otherwise hear.

But it also puts pressure on law schools to at least cover some of that ground in the classroom. An active Federalist Society chapter signals to its host campus: “You have a choice. You can leave education regarding these principles and ideals to us, or you can deal with some of this in the classroom.” A smart, strategic law professor is not going to want to cede this territory completely to the Federalist Society. And so while we certainly do a lot of education outside the classroom, we’re also having impact on curriculums.

Q: What trends are you seeing in the ideology of law students right now?
A: If you look at law students today in comparison with law students from the ’60s through early ’80s, there are fewer today who are deeply committed to the collectivist, extreme liberal position about the role of law in society. The idea of law being a tool for social engineering—as opposed to a tool for the enhancement of freedom and personal responsibility—held sway much more monolithically back then.

There is today a greater skepticism about big institutions, which includes government. There is a greater willingness to question the standard line that a professor might offer in class. Law-school campuses are more open to the exchange of conservative and libertarian legal ideals, and talented people professing those ideals.

Mind you, the actual makeup of law-school faculties has not improved much. There are some law schools, including several of the very best, where there are more conservative and libertarian professors today than there were 20 or 25 years ago, but there is still not the kind of balance there should be.

Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Some of it is a legacy problem—law-school administration and hiring are dominated by legal scholars and academics who are pretty far to the left. We also have to encourage more conservatives and libertarians to consider becoming law professors. The recent economic downturn for law schools has slowed hiring, which means less opportunity to recruit young conservative and libertarian talent.

Q: What kind of donors support the Federalist Society?
A: The Federalist Society receives a great deal of support from wealth creators who understand that law is a crucial instrument for governing the affairs of individuals and businesses, for creating settled expectations, for protecting property, for allowing voluntary transactions, for instilling personal responsibility, for creating an environment where wealth creation and entrepreneurship can thrive. We are also supported by charitable foundations and philanthropic institutions that understand the relationship between the rule of law and national prosperity, growth, and security. And then there are many successful lawyers who are in a position to aid our work.

Q: What do donors expect of you in return for their financial gifts?
A: Donors want to see an increasing number of law students, lawyers, judges, and legal-policy officials embrace our principles. They want to see those principles applied in the world by individuals who reach public office, serve in the judiciary, volunteer for pro-bono activity, participate in media stories. They want to see active citizen lawyers who are prepared to defend our founding principles. That infrastructure of talent is our most valuable asset.

Our donors also want to see more balanced debate about the proper role of law in our society, and the important legal questions of the day. They want to see deeper, more thoughtful inquiry in the press. They want to see those topics infused in legal education. They want to see such principles debated on the floor of Congress or in state houses.

Our donors know that if you want to change laws, and transform legal culture, you need to identify talented people, educate them with time-tested ideas, give them tools for communicating and applying those ideals, and help them become leaders. That’s what we do.

You see the fruits of our work in the huge number of Federalists ascending the federal bench, occupying seats in the Senate and the House, serving in the executive branch, serving as state attorneys general and counsels to governors. These are people helping to transform the legal culture to one that respects limits on government power, and understands that it is the role of the law to facilitate freedom, prosperity, growth, and free markets.

There are parts of the country where it’s harder to build a network because of geography. In major cities there are high concentrations of lawyers. But in the heartland the legal community is more geographically dispersed. It requires more prospecting, more work, and more resources to reach these areas. But it’s important to have a presence everywhere. Judges decide important cases all over the country. Local prosecutors create new arguments. State legislators need legal guidance.

Q: Societal trust in government is pretty low today. Do people trust the judiciary more than the other branches of government? Should they?
A: None of the branches are trusted anywhere near as much as one would hope. But the judiciary is trusted somewhat more than the political branches. Now should it be?

The judicial branch is very scattershot. There are too many judges who don’t interpret the laws as written, who ignore traditional legal principles. But the genius of our Constitutional system is that there are ways to push back against that.

Throughout the history of western civilization many great people have fought for the rule of law, for limited government. That took us from a feudal society with highly centralized power to one based on individual freedom and responsibility. Thankfully previous generations didn’t give up, and they left us a great legacy. That ought to motivate all of us to do the same for our children and our grandchildren.

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The Power of Small Givers

The Ford Foundation was once described as “a large body of money…completely surrounded by people who want some.” It’s easy to look at a big pile of silver like a major foundation and think that’s what American philanthropy is all about.

But, actually, philanthropy in the U.S. is not just a story of moguls and big trusts. In fact, it’s not primarily about wealthy people at all.

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Take the Gates Foundation. We hear an awful lot about it—and it does some wonderful things. But keep in mind that Gates gives away about $4 billion annually. Meanwhile, Americans as a whole donate $410 billion every year. That means Gates money is about 1 percent of our total yearly donations. And the value of our donated time as volunteers is worth about as much as the cash we transfer. So big givers are only a small portion of our full charitable pie.

Last year, just 16 percent of charitable giving in the U.S. came from foundations, and only 5 percent more came from corporations. The rest was given by individuals—with the bulk coming from everyday small givers at an annual rate of about $2,500 per household. Amidst all the media-painted pictures of gifts from the rich, few people realize that the philanthropic iceberg looming beneath that surface tip is a vast body of small donors.

Take Gus and Marie Salenske. Gus was a plumber and Marie was a nurse. They lived quietly until a few years ago in a small house in Syracuse, New York. Their one indulgence was weekly square dancing; other than that, they were savers. And when they died not long ago, this simple couple left more than $3 million to charity.

Anne Scheiber was a shy auditor who retired in 1944 with just $5,000 in the bank. Through frugal living and some brilliant stock picking she turned this into $22 million by the time she passed away at the age of 101. She left it all to Yeshiva University so that bright but needy girls could attend college and medical school.

Elinor Sauerwein was hardworking and independent. She painted her own home, kept a vegetable garden, and mowed the lawn herself until she was in her 90s to save money. Her financial adviser reported that “her goal for years and years was to amass as much as she could so it would go to the Salvation Army.” And when Elinor died in 2011, she left $1.7 million to the Modesto, California, branch of the Salvation Army.

Then there’s Albert Lexie, a sweet, mildly disabled man who shined shoes in Pittsburgh for more than 50 years, until his recent retirement. Albert made a decision in 1981 to donate every penny of his shoeshining tips to the Free Care Fund of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, which benefits families who can’t afford treatment for their kids. Over the years, Lexie handed over more than $200,000 to Children’s Hospital. That was a third of his total earnings during those decades.

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Pittsburgh shoeshiner Albert Lexie gave a third of his total earnings for decades to charity.

Impressed by his generosity, some of Lexie’s friends got together a few years ago to celebrate his efforts. He was characteristically low-key in his remarks to the gathering: “Thank you all for coming here, and I think God’s really blessing because today is a beautiful day.” The mayor of his hometown put things in perspective: “Albert doesn’t want any praise; Albert does what he does because he does it from his heart. And that’s what the rest of the world needs to understand: when you do something from your heart, it’s a better place.”

Cynics may say, “those are lovely stories, but nothing large or consequential can ever be accomplished by these little givers.” But the clear verdict from American history is that these doubters are wrong. Many remarkable things have been achieved by dispersed giving, which often aggregates in formidable ways. If everybody does their little bit, the cumulative result is impressive. As Albert Lexie, and lots of other small givers, have proven, over and over.

(For more stories like this, subscribe to the Sweet Charity podcast at SweetCharityPodcast.org)