Want to Boost School Achievement? Don’t Forget Families
Want to increase high-school graduation rates? Decrease suspensions? Reduce the number of teacher phone calls home to parents about discipline issues? A new study out from the Institute for Family Studies issues a clarion call: Don’t forget the importance of strengthening the family.
This study finds more correlation between educational achievement and a student’s home life than any other factor besides family income. What makes this new research particularly interesting is its local specificity. The institute drilled down into state-level data (focusing on Florida, Arizona, and Ohio) and gathered details of concrete outcomes like high-school graduation rates, school suspensions, differences in accomplishment by sex, and more.
In Florida, for instance, whether a child’s parents were married turned out to be as important in determining graduation rates as family income, and more powerful than parent education levels, race, or ethnicity. For suspensions, family structure had a higher effect than race, income, or the percentage of college graduates in the county. In Arizona, where girls are much more likely than boys to graduate from high school, it turns out that men catch up to women in school districts with a higher share of married parents.
In Ohio, the research team investigated whether family structure had a relationship to whether students were held back a grade, whether students consistently completed schoolwork, and whether parents received calls from school about discipline. On each front, family structure was strongly correlated. Students from two-parent families were more engaged with schoolwork, about half as likely to spark a phone call about discipline, and five times less likely to be held back.
Obviously, family poverty is a high contributor to struggles in school. This study showed that there too, marriage and family stability is a major help. Increased average income is one clear advantage of the two-parent home.
So donors devoted to increasing opportunity in America by improving our educational outcomes should take a strong interest in the home life of students. That is at least as important to student success as what happens in school. Go to ifstudies.org/research/reports for details of this local research.
In this issue, you’ll read many stories of how nonprofits are helping open economic opportunities in the world of commerce. The influence extends in both directions. Competitive techniques from the business world are also increasingly employed to spur nonprofits to step up their game.
Take the proliferation of charitable “shark tank” events. At the TANK in Denver, local nonprofits compete for funding from business leaders, lenders, and investors. The Palm Beach Philanthropy Tank in Florida offers young people mentoring and funding for community projects. In Dallas, the recent OneUp the Pitch event hosted by the United Way and five chapters of the Young Presidents’ Organization allowed founders of five social enterprises to introduce their ventures to a packed audience and panel of celebrity judges distributing $100,000.
“The chance to connect with partners like the YPO, develop their storytelling capacity, and then share that story at a dynamic event where they can also win money accelerates their ability to be successful,” says United Way of Metropolitan Dallas CEO Jennifer Sampson, who hopes to make OneUp the Pitch an annual event.
Ahead of the event, contestants worked alongside YPO coaches to sharpen their business plans and pitches. Contestant Brittany Underwood appreciated this chance to collaborate with accomplished business mentors, pursue new capital, and showcase her work to prospective customers and investors. Underwood has organized women who were incarcerated, sexually trafficked, or from multi-generationally poor homes to produce jewelry. The coaches helped her see places she could expand her enterprise, and her Akola Project was ultimately awarded $75,000—which she earmarked for digital marketing. She hopes business-oriented competitions like the one she participated in will become a common way for donors to boost nonprofits. —Daniel P. Smith
Sometimes a Company Is the Best Way to Help
Every month, people interested in learning a new language complete about 6 billion lessons on a computer app called Duolingo. With 120 million users, Duolingo trains more people in foreign languages than all U.S. schools. And this service is free.
The company is a for-profit entity sustained by investment capital from Google Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and others. CEO Luis von Ahn admits they need to find a way to monetize their offerings, soon. “We spend about $42,000 per day on servers, employee salaries, etc. And this cost keeps going up with our number of users, which doubles every few months.” But the company is committed to providing basic users with services for nothing. So it is experimenting instead with revenue streams like a an option to buy fancy outfits for the app’s cartoon mascot, and translation services for media outlets, and a $50 fee to take an English competency test, which is quickly becoming accepted as an alternative to the more expensive TOEFL exam by entities ranging from the Harvard Extension School to Uber. To date about 50,000 people have passed the Duolingo English Test.
To keep expanding while holding costs down, the company runs an incubator where volunteers help build or improve language courses. Currently under construction: French for Chinese speakers, Hindi for English speakers, and more. A specialized app called Duolingo for Schools has been created to bring the platform to classrooms. Like the original app it is free, and now has 300,000 users.
Faith Groups Are the Biggest Saviors of the Homeless
Scholars from the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion recently examined who exactly it is that offers crucial services to homeless people today. The results from 11 major U.S. cities show that almost 60 percent of emergency shelter beds for the homeless are provided by faith-based organizations. (And that excludes all homeless outreach by individual congregations, which can be extensive.) Moreover, the study found that cities with lots of faith-based activity have low overall numbers of unsheltered homeless. Conversely, cities with weak faith-based infrastructure have many more people sleeping on streets.
The researchers also did qualitative assessments. They found distinctive approaches to homelessness among faith-based organizations. Chief among them: a concern among religiously motivated helpers that homelessness is a symptom of the deeper problem of a lack of healthy relationships, and that re-invigorating family and community life is important to getting people back in homes.
Government services and mandates don’t always fit well with the local efforts of faith-based nonprofits and individual congregations. It would have been easier “to build a nuclear bomb” than to create a State-of-California-sanctioned preschool in his mission, concluded Herb Johnson of the San Diego Rescue Mission after some frustrating experience. Organizations like Teen Challenge and Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Centers that serve large numbers of homeless addicts are routinely ignored by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development surveys, report the researchers.
Many faith-based organizations now provide effective job-readiness classes, addiction treatment, and their own social enterprises where recently homeless persons can get back on the ladder of work and independence, noted principal author Byron Johnson. The Los Angeles mission run by Pastor Andy Bales, for instance, now houses 1,300 guests each night, including many children, and provides meals, shelter, spiritual encouragement, adult-education classes, vocational education (including certificates), many varieties of counseling, medical help, and more.
When asked about pressure to reduce their faith orientation and chapel expectations, service providers like Bales offered clear answers. The faith component is crucial to what they do. Without the liberty to offer religious comfort, sustenance, and discipline, most would close their missions. Turning around lives is hard, notes Bales. So “why would I give up that power?”
Q&A with Curtis Granderson
Current New York Met and three-time baseball All Star Curtis Granderson recently spoke with Philanthropy's Daniel P. Smith about his giving.
Q: Why did you start the Grand Kids Foundation, and what does it do?
A: It started in 2007 when I was playing with the Detroit Tigers. Coming from a family of educators, schooling was the immediate priority. But my parents set a good example across the board. Growing up, my mom and dad were very active in the community, whether it was giving people rides to and from work or practice, or taking clothes I had outgrown to their schools and passing them around. Ours was always the house where kids could come and grab something to eat, or meet up. I didn’t necessarily realize what was going on, but I watched it, absorbed it, and followed suit. At UIC I got involved with the Chris Zorich Charitable Foundation. We’d go to Soldier Field and pack Thanksgiving dinners. The response I saw on the receiving families’ faces reminded me of our ability to do things that can make a positive difference in people’s lives.
So giving was a part of my background from the beginning, and at a certain point starting my own foundation was the natural next step. When I found out that the high-school graduation rate in Detroit was just over 50 percent, it was clear that education was the place to start, so that’s how the Grand Kids Foundation got its mission.
Q: It’s easy for those with means to write a check, but you give your time and presence in addition to your financial resources.
A: The biggest thing is really that I enjoy it. I consider myself a big kid. I’m 36 now and when I’m doing these camps and clinics, I’m out there trying to lead the way. I’m having fun with the kids and trying to get as excited as they are when they make a great play or improve in a certain skill. It’s exciting to see that change, and to see when kids start to realize what they can achieve.
I actually just had this happen right before I got to spring training. I was running an outfield drill and a kid kept missing the fly ball. I told him, “Don’t worry. You’ll catch one when it matters.” And sure enough, when the competition came around, he caught the one that helped his team win, and he was so excited. That’s why I want to be physically present and involved alongside these kids. When I speak to students, I let them know that I was in their shoes, that I was a kid trying to reach my potential. I don’t shy away from the questions they might ask. If they can look at me and see that we come from a similar background, that we look about the same size, and that we have other similarities, then I hope that gives them reason to challenge themselves and chase their goals. I want to see them and they should see me.
There was another special moment last summer when I went back to Detroit for the first time in a few years. We did a kids camp just a few minutes away from Comerica Park. Years before, that field was a place in Detroit you didn’t want to go, but here I was looking at black kids, white kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids, moving around on a clean, safe field and excited about baseball.
Q: Being a professional athlete can be an all-consuming effort both on and off the field. How do you find the energy to contribute on such a personal level?
A: There are a lot of guys I play with who are married and have kids, so a lot of their time and energy is devoted to being a husband and father. I don’t have that, so I’m able to take that energy and go attend a camp, do a meet-and-greet, or visit a school. And I like being busy. Back when I was in college, I’d have a morning workout, classes, practice, and then studying at night, and the ball just kept rolling one day to the next. I learned to keep things in order so I could perform in the classroom and on the field. I’ve always felt I’m at my best when I’m busy.
Sometimes when I’m out doing outreach activities, I’ll hear comments about how I should be practicing more, how I need to be focused more on the game. First, I’m never too tired to do these things, and second, those comments overlook all the good that comes from this work. Going to a school or hosting a clinic never takes away from my performance on the field. Over the years, I’ve seen kids I met early on graduate from high school and go to college, many of them the first in their families to do so. If my interaction with them is something that inspires them, then taking two hours out of my day is something I will absolutely do time and again.
Q: Some public figures are involved in charity because it builds their “brand.” How is this different for you?
A: The term “brand” is thrown around a lot more today than it was when I started the Grand Kids Foundation a decade ago. The only thing I truly wanted to do was to raise money to help the causes I thought needed support. That’s what I was focused on, whether it was hosting a wine tasting after a game or our celebrity basketball match. I just wanted to bring attention to education in Detroit and use baseball as a platform, and take advantage of the fact that I was on a stage where people were more likely to pay attention to what I was saying.
I’ve never done this to win recognition. It’s been entirely about bringing attention to these causes I feel are important. Education is so critical in our society, as is physical fitness and nutrition that help you focus in the classroom and at the extracurricular activities where students also learn leadership and teamwork. I'm grateful for any publicity that allows me to shine more light on the importance of education.
Q: How have you tried to use your connections as a professional athlete to advance your charitable efforts?
A: I funnel my endorsement earnings to philanthropy, and I enjoy partnering with other donors as well. When I was in Detroit playing for the Tigers, Derek Stevens was the first big sponsor I had for something. He’s a Detroit native and owns the D Las Vegas casino. I was introduced to him during a Tigers event where there was an auction item called “Bring a Tiger to your son or daughter’s school.” Derek won it and I was the Tiger selected to go to his son’s school. At the time, I had just made the team and wasn’t well-known. I went there and spoke to the kids and Derek and I had a good connection. When I started the Grand Kids Foundation the following year and we were looking for sponsors, he was the first one to jump on board with a $10,000 gift. That was 2007. Fast forward to the present day, and we have great relationships with New Balance, which provides a lot of gear for the kids at our camps and clinics and fitness challenges, and Citibank, which supports camps and food drives. Then there’s Rawlings, which did a special thing for us when we held our Baseball 101 event at UIC. We had 100 kids come out, some of whom had never played baseball before, and Rawlings gave them all their first baseball glove.
Q: You returned to UIC to earn your degree and are currently one of only a few dozen active MLB players with a college degree. Why was that important to you?
A: I looked at it this way: If I can get that degree in hand, then that’s something that can never be taken away from me. When I got drafted following my junior year at UIC, that started my professional career, but I still had a long way to go in order to make it to the big leagues. I knew the odds and realities of accomplishing that, so I wanted to get my degree taken care of. I actually asked that the Tigers pay for it as a part of my contract. UIC Athletics administrator Denny Wills, whom I still admire to this day, was instrumental in helping me manage it. I remember taking a final exam when I was on the road with my minor-league team, and having my manager sign off that I didn’t cheat before sending the test to the professor. There were a lot of pieces that needed to be put into place to allow me to complete my degree, but I knew once I got that done I didn’t have to worry about what I might do if I stalled out in the minors. After that I just went out there and played baseball like a six-year-old at T-ball and had fun, and the rest took care of itself.
Q: What are your plans after baseball?
A: I don’t want to coach, but I do enjoy the game and would like to stick around it in some form or fashion. On the philanthropic side, I definitely want to see the Grand Kids Foundation continue to grow, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to be around it on a more day-to-day basis. We just established a scholarship for graduates of my high school who enroll at UIC, and it’s a goal of mine to see that grow.
An Easy Way to Target College Gifts
When an anonymous donor had an opportunity to establish a $15,000 scholarship at a college of his choice, he decided against shunting it to his prestigious and already well-endowed alma mater. He sensed that his gift could pack more punch elsewhere, but was unsure what to look for. In stepped the Fund for American Renewal.
A new resource established by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, FAR aims to help smaller and mid-level donors who lack the staff of a foundation to identify opportunities for giving on college campuses that reflect their values and will have positive effects. Thanks to a $4.5 million gift from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation to cover the costs of legal work, technical assistance, and staff time, the service will be free to donors. The entirety of their donation can therefore be directed to the recipients they choose.
With FAR’s assistance, the $15,000 donor arranged for his scholarship to go to the Society of Tocqueville Fellows at Furman University, a program that provides civic education. This donor with a “keen interest in American history, government, and politics” was “happy to find a program that could cultivate students’ deep and thoughtful appreciation and understanding of these areas.”
As a broader alternative, FAR also offers donors a chance to pool their funds with other like-minded givers to support one of five interest areas: science and math, economic literacy, civics and statesmanship, the Western canon, or academic freedom. FAR will seek out opportunities at colleges around the country where the gifts conglomerated for those purposes can be directed to make the greatest difference.
Helping Parents Navigate Schooling
In New Orleans, tourism is a $7 billion industry. The hospitality-industry workers who accommodate nearly 10 million annual visitors to that city often work irregular hours that can complicate tasks like dropping their kids off at school, attending parent-teacher meetings, monitoring homework, and searching out the best educational fit when a school transition is needed.
That’s why former leaders of the education nonprofit TNTP launched EdNavigator to serve 700 families who work at New Orleans hotels. Hotels have the option of providing universal access to EdNavigator services through a flat monthly rate determined by the number of their employees, or can sponsor employees on an individual basis. In some cases they also pay employees for time taken off to meet with the nonprofit’s counselors. EdNavigator’s online and in-person guidance helps families find the best schooling option for their kids, maneuver the Big Easy’s open-enrollment application process, and coordinate with their children’s schools to ensure that kids receive the services they need. Along with the hotel subscription fees, philanthropic donations cover the rest of the nonprofit’s costs.
Hotels get a strong return on their investment. They experience less employee tardiness, and reported that the annual job turnover rate in 2016 among participating employees was only 16 percent—compared to an industry-wide rate of around 70 percent.
Building on their skills in digital presentation of educational information for families, EdNavigator recently partnered with the Archdiocese of New Orleans to unveil an online database of local Catholic schools. It is focused on helping parents learn about tuition-assistance programs, and how to apply for enrollment at a school that interests them. There are now plans for EdNavigator to bring its services to Boston.
Across the country, the rise of school choice, both public and private, creates new needs for mechanisms that allow parents to be well-informed directors of their children’s education. Solutions such as EdNavigator that can be adapted and expanded from place to place offer opportunities for donors who want to assist. —Pat Burke
Be Careful Who You Entrust with Your Trust
Imagine the horror of discovering that your family’s charitable trust is no longer controlled by you, but by a bank. That is the nightmare scenario the Jackson Family Charitable Trust finds itself in.
The Jackson family created its wealth through the Pittsburgh Des Moines Steel Company, which helped erect the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Peace Bridge from Buffalo to Canada, and the “forked” columns in the World Trade Center. In 1950, the Jackson family created a charitable trust, naming William Jackson and the Commonwealth Trust Company of Pittsburgh as co-trustees. Through multiple mergers and acquisitions over the decades, the corporate trustee became PNC Financial, and in 2016 that large bank rejected the list of recommended grantees put forth by Jackson family members at the foundation, and asked a court to resolve the 50-50 dispute.
A judge ruled in PNC’s favor and allowed only a fraction of the Jackson family’s grant recommendations to be disbursed. The judge made his ruling without reviewing evidence of the family’s charitable intentions, or its grant history. The Jacksons are now trying to regain control of their charitable trust.
This example illustrates how donor intent can be imperiled as trustees change over time. The best protection against that is for donors to record, in detail, their philanthropic intentions, clarifying their charitable purpose and operating principles, and never leaving the disbursement of their fortune to the assumed trustworthiness of today’s trustees, or the legal structure of their giving vehicle.
At Noah’s Ark, an animal sanctuary 40 miles south of Atlanta, a bear cub, cub lion, and cub tiger were rescued together in 2001 and grew up as friends. That peculiar group of orphans became a major draw, and is one reason the facility attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year (though the lion, may he rest in peace, recently passed away). But the sanctuary’s tradition of care, and of odd bedfellows, extends much further: Noah’s Ark is also a sanctuary for children. It provides a home for a number of orphans and neglected or needy young people, offering emergency shelter, care, and medical support to youngsters in residence, as well as stimulation and instruction for special-needs children, and educational programs for hundreds of visiting youngsters. Its overarching mission—“bringing children and animals together with the purpose of providing unconditional love, unconditional service, and a future full of hope.”
With more than 1,500 domestic and exotic animals on the premises—everything from bison to capuchin monkeys, as well as rescued dogs and cats available to good homes through their adoption center—Noah’s Ark offers lots of opportunities for learning, nurture, and service. It relies on 250 volunteers and charitable donations to cover operating needs—which include $33,000 per month for animal feed and care. —Madeline Fry
Rediscovering a Lost Artist
“Art is not my aim, it is my means.” So said Polish-American artist and political satirist Arthur Szyk, who referred to himself as a “soldier in art.” Thanks to a recent philanthropic gift, a new generation of students, World War II buffs, and Jewish history enthusiasts can now appreciate his work skewering Nazism and celebrating freedom and democracy.
This spring, Taube Philanthropies donated $10 million to the University of California, Berkeley to create the only public archive of Szyk’s unusual work. As a result, 450 sketches and paintings, as well as personal diaries and publications, will be added to the university’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art, which Taube previously gifted in 2010.
After moving to the U.S. in 1940, Szyk created religious and political artwork celebrating his culture and satirizing those who tried to extinguish it. (His mother and brother died in Nazi concentration camps.) His ornate work appeared in popular venues like Time and Esquire magazines, before fading into obscurity.
“Many American Jews have such a hard time disassociating Poland from the Holocaust that they don’t fully appreciate what their heritage contributed to all of Western culture,” donor Tad Taube, a Polish-American Jew like Szyk, once told Philanthropy. “Unfortunately, many see Poland as nothing but a giant cemetery. I want to restore a sense of perspective.” —Madeline Fry
Ira Fulton is a classic entrepreneur. He made money founding computer companies, selling clothes, and building homes. He is also a tithing Mormon and very generous philanthropist. Back in 1999 he was impressed with an idea from Brent Adams, an engineering professor at Brigham Young University, who wanted to acquire a supercomputer for the school so that students could do the complex modeling needed for high-end car design. Thanks to Fulton’s generosity, BYU soon had the machine on campus.
But once a powerful tool like that is humming away, you never quite know what students are going to do with it. In 2002, Adams helped some students use the big machine to create, of all things, an animated film called Lemmings. And it was good—winning both a student Academy Award and a student Emmy. That was the first in a string of brilliant student-made animated films out of BYU that soon had collected five Oscars and 16 Emmys.
It’s not uncommon for a philanthropic gift to evolve in a different direction from what was originally expected, and smart donors go with the flow of success. Fulton was excited by BYU’s success in animation, and started donating more supercomputers. Before long, the college was wielding big-league processing power. A series of classes and two separate degrees in animation were launched. Talented students flocked in.
Soon this upstart department in Utah found its graduates being avidly snatched up by movie studios like Sony, Pixar, and Disney, top computer-game makers like Blizzard, and television cartoon companies like Nickelodeon. This was a stunning rise to the top of the industry in less than 15 years. And it was savvy, well-timed philanthropy that paid for the new facilities and curricula.
The other crucial contributor—recognized and reinforced by Fulton and other givers—was a unique campus culture. BYU’s animators tend to be very different from other film students. Nearly all are Mormons. Many marry and become parents while in college or just as they start their careers. And BYU requires them to take not just training in the animation trade, but also core classes in English, history, and religion.
Further, BYU doesn’t follow the traditional film-school method of having each student create his own film. Instead, the animation majors work in teams. Each team comes up with an idea for a movie, and the entire department discusses and votes to choose one winning concept and select the director and chief animators. Then everyone works together to turn that concept into an annual production. Great animation is hugely labor-intensive and specialized. Some animators end up as experts who just create hair, or water, or faces. There has to be close coordination among different designers, and music and dialogue specialists, and programmers who pull everything together. Vanity and big egos are not a great match for film animation.
When the BYU professors were consulting closely with the major film studios to design a curriculum for this new school so grads would be prepared for top-level jobs, the studio executives often surprised them. For one thing, they wanted to hire people who weren’t just artists or computer whizzes, but who brought rounded humane values to the work. And they said they needed young people who understand cooperation. Ed Catmull, the brilliant Pixar founder, told Adams, “We can’t find people who are good at collaborating.” Professor Adams pointed out that his Mormon students—growing up in big families, with an emphasis on community—tended to be pretty good at teamwork, and pretty light on ego.
Then some of the studio executives gave Adams even more surprising guidance on what they would value in new hires for their films or video games. “Will you please make sure your students keep taking religion classes?” one begged him, sotto voce. “This industry attracts creeps, and we’re tired of creeps. We’re tired of working with creeps, and creeps make creepy movies.”
Animation is the most family-friendly part of the film industry. But popular movies of all sorts tend to have big, moral themes, and the ability to spell out and wrestle with real good and true evil. A moral sense, understanding human frailties and temptations, and finding ways to bring to light the better natures of people are fundamental requirements of positive visual storytelling.
BYU’s mature, educationally rounded, ethically trained students turned out to be perfect matches in many cases for the comparatively wholesome animation business. They know how to work selflessly in teams. They are trained in the practical business needs of entertainment commerce. And they bring an imagination to their work that can lift, rather than darken, the spirits of their audience. That’s why its students have quickly collected so many industry awards and film-festival prizes, and become prized by top entertainment firms.
Ira Fulton’s giving to Brigham Young University totals close to $100 million. And one of its most productive elements was a misfire on auto design that turned into a bunch of funny cartoons that get people thinking. That’s the kind of course-correction that philanthropy can be great at.
(For more stories like this, subscribe to the Sweet Charity podcast at SweetCharityPodcast.org)