Nonprofit private universities: Philanthropy’s new vehicle for local change?

For twenty years now, the Chronicle of Philanthropy has released its Top 50 Philanthropy rankings which was most recently topped by Michael Bloomberg who gave $3.3bn through Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

Bloomberg Philanthropies, in collaboration with Harvard University, recently announced a $150 million investment to establish the University-wide Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. The Harvard Gazette shared that ‘this center builds upon the success of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a collaboration between Bloomberg Philanthropies, Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Business School established in 2017, and will strengthen the capabilities of mayors and their teams, advance effective organizational practices in city halls around the world, support a new generation of public servants as they encounter unprecedented challenges in the years to come, and produce new research and instructional materials that will help city leaders.’

Focused leadership programs have often been housed within academia. However if you look more closely at recent programmatic investments from billionaires you might be noticing that many of their ‘home-based’ investments aren’t going through the traditional private foundation set-ups of hiring subject matter experts to lead programs and surrounding them with grant officers, marketing teams, lawyers and finance staff and forming the best teams money can assemble, they are starting to outsource it.  

Take for example T. Denny Sanford, who found himself land at number 8 on the rankings. The founder of Premier Bank (who donated over half a billion dollars in 2019), chose to deliver his legacy project with the National University System headquartered in San Diego, a private nonprofit university Sanford has given close to half a billion dollars over the past five years to support the adoption of social emotional learning in schools, supporting teacher excellence and inspirational learning from K through 6, and the elevation of fundraising skills throughout the nonprofit sector.

Harmony (their flagship SEL program) through 2020 had already reached 11 million students in all 50 states and across 20 countries and with over 16,000 school partners . The curriculum, training and materials are all provided free of charge and have been adopted by the top 10 largest districts in the country including the NYC DOE, LA Unified and Chicago Public Schools. It’s no surprise that SEL is now being discussed in Congress as an integral part of a whole child approach to child development in our schools, championed by former Presidential Candidates such as Congressman Tim Ryan (who has proposed a bill in the house) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

But why this approach? Couldn’t the donor just have hired a number of high-priced lobbyists to advance this cause? Couldn’t Bloomberg have just made more donations to the National League of Cities or United States Conference of Mayors? Of course they could have. But those who are successful in business tend to take a business approach to new products, testing it in the market with an initial gift, and then doubling down on it a few years later (of which both donors eventually did).

So is this a shrewd investment? First of all the return on investment on this approach has been almost immediate without having to build the infrastructure a business of this size and scale would require. Secondly, the funding to a nonprofit university is in fact leveraging one of the most underrated educational resources in our community. Let’s not forget, too, that almost 30% of all U.S. students (3.4m FTE students) go through one of the 1,687 private nonprofits operating in this country. And according to the Brookings Institute, not only are they contributing to the nation’s educational attainment but also its economic mobility. 

Moving forward and putting aside Ivy League and other top tier universities for the time being – which make up the majority of this tertiary category – it’s the smaller systems that are arguably leading the charge in the adoption of online course offerings and enabling structural flexibility/inclusion through affordable courses, one month units (catering to full-time workers, parents and transitioning veterans), and corporate personalization of courses as a workforce development option. Given the needs of high tech companies, start-ups and other skilled contract work, higher education is fast becoming more focused on credentialing to keep up with sector demand.

So are nonprofit private universities becoming a breeding ground for philanthropists and their legacy projects? It’s possible, but many will be watching the future success and impact of these  donor’s unique approaches come 2023 when the current funding agreement concludes at National University and whether there is indeed any systemic ROI for cities and its residents through a new informed and instructed courageous leadership style.

I’m excited to continue watching how these unique projects evolve, as will sector wide commentators. Could it spur federal funding to support SEL? Could it inspire other philanthropists to donate to institutions like National University to leverage more impact? Or could it simply fizzle out and serve as a warning to those questioning traditional approaches that there are only a few viable options available to them to tackle real systems change?

At the end of the day, these approaches have to be applauded. It’s innovative and goes against the traditional wisdom and models of how big philanthropy is done, and that’s how progress is achieved. It makes sense from a business standpoint where a lot of market research, testing and the ability to pivot are staples of proving your product/vision in the marketplace. It’s taking research to a point of commercialization but focusing on the social outcomes and not the financial yield.

Social emotional learning and grassroots leadership comes at a time when we need it the most, when our civil discourse and trust in our institutions are at all time lows. These gifts that fueled these programs were definitely motivated by legacy, understanding that someone’s success can help lay a path for millions more. Both investments are a reflection of that vision and history will ultimately tell if it was a pivotal moment for philanthropy and how it partners with academia.

Lest I forget, The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is a collaboration between Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and Bloomberg Philanthropies to equip mayors and senior city officials to tackle complex challenges in their cities and improve the quality of life of their citizens. Launched in 2017, the initiative has worked with 400 mayors and 1,300 senior city officials in 478 cities worldwide. The initiative has also advanced research and developed new curricula and teaching tools to help city leaders solve real-world problems.

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