2008: Cause-oriented Journalism
Take one scoop of donors looking for new ways to affect public opinion and government policy, mix with three scoops of mainstream journalism bleeding red ink in the face of new Internet-based competition, and you get a layer-cake of donor-funded reporting operations. The granddaddy of these creations is ProPublica, founded by hyperactive liberal donors Herb and Marion Sandler to be a twenty-first-century muckraker, with a special focus on topics like gun control, civil rights, health care, fracking, campaign finance limits, labor laws, the Gulf oil spill, Guantanamo, and other policy hot buttons.
2014: New Orleans School District Goes All-charter
Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans public schools were the worst district in the second-lowest-performing state in the entire U.S. Fully 78 percent of NOLA students attended a school designated as “failing” by state standards. Then the storm wrecked 100 of the city’s 127 schools. Rather than rebuild the dysfunctional and corrupt school district, local leaders decided to instead create the nation’s most complete necklace of charter schools, then let them independently pursue a new set of higher common standards. Decision-making power was decentralized away from the old school-board bureaucracy and transferred to individual principals, teachers, and schoolhouses. Top charter operators from across the country were invited in to set up shop, and more than 40 different entities now operate charters in the city on a competitive basis. At the same time, school performance began to be monitored intensely, with the understanding that new schools given five-year operating charters would be shut down at the end of that period if their students were not succeeding.
2007: Healing the Upper Midwest
The business triumphs of Denny Sanford allowed him to retire to Florida at age 45–but he was soon itchy and returned to the upper Midwest where he had spent his entire previous life. After further commercial successes, he started giving away money. He turned his attention to the Sioux Valley Hospitals and Health System, beginning with a $16 million gift for a children’s hospital designed like a fairy castle. With his $400 million donation in 2007 (the largest single gift ever made to a U.S. health-care organization), the nonprofit was renamed Sanford Health. Sanford Health now includes nearly three dozen hospitals and more than 140 clinics, centered on South and North Dakota but spread across eight states, making it one of the largest rural, not-for-profit health systems in the nation.
1853: Connecting Orphans to Families
Charles Loring Brace was emphatic that the thousands of miserable homeless children roaming the streets of nineteenth-century New York had the “same capacities” and the same importance “as the little ones in our own homes.” That was an essential part of his Christian creed. But Brace also believed that “habits of life and the inner forces which form character” ultimately drive success and happiness, so it is important for unformed children to be given both love and good examples. He didn’t like traditional orphanages, which he thought fostered passivity and dependence, so in 1853 Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society and began helping boys and girls leave the streets and enter lodging houses that required small payments from the children to remind them of their capacity to support themselves. The society offered workshops and industrial schools that taught trade skills.
2000: Paying for Lynx Habitat at Loomis Forest
The Canada lynx was added to the U.S. endangered species list in 2000. One of the five areas of “critical habitat” for the animal was Loomis State Forest in Washington, where up to half of the cats in that state were thought to live. Most of that forest was trust land managed by the state, with the proceeds from timber sales going to schools to pay for the education of local children. In 1998 the state of Washington offered to end timber sales on the land if conservationists could raise sufficient funds—within one year—to compensate the schools for loss of this lumbering revenue. A local campaign was launched to raise $13 million in donations from private individuals and foundations.
By Joanne Florino
Image © Heatherwick Studio
As I read David Callahan’s November 30, 2014 New York Times opinion essay about the private philanthropy behind the planned Pier 55—a new offshore public park in a previously industrialized section of the Hudson River—I was reminded of one the old phrase: No good deed goes unpunished. While conceding that park-giving generosity is “admirable,” Mr. Callahan worries that “it also poses a threat to the ability of everyday Americans to have an equal voice in civic life” and “is part of a larger story about rising inequality and shrinking democracy.”