oberndorfA recent profile in “Inside Philanthropy” takes a look at Oberndorf Philanthropy, the charitable vehicle of hedge fund investor William Oberndorf ’75. Remembered by his Williams College classmates as a track star, Oberndorf is best known to Ephs these days as a former trustee of the College as well as for the retirement party he hosted (along with Tom Krens ’69) last year for legendary Art History professor Eva Grudin.

With his wife, Oberndorf has created the Bill and Susan Oberndorf Foundation, which Inside Philanthropy reports has about $80 million in assets and gave away approximately $8 million in the most recently reported tax year:

The couple has a big interest in education reform and the Oberndorfs are deep into school choice. In the early 1990s, Oberndorf helped found American Education Reform Foundation. The outfit has worked to “bring about systemic and sustainable reform by promoting broad-based parental choice that aids low-income families.” Oberndorf also serves as chairman emeritus and board member of the Alliance for School Choice, an organization he co-founded. At a 2011 panel in Washington D.C., according to Education Week, Oberndorf was credited as having financed school choice with “tens of millions” of dollars. Oberndorf also said that charter schools and voucher programs inject “competition into the equation.”

Recent education philanthropy by the couple has involved quite a number of outfits including Foundation for Excellence in Education (a $100,000 grant in 2013), Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, “an American education reform organization headquartered in Indianapolis,” and SF School Choice Alliance. Support has also gone to charters such as KIPP Bay Area Schools, which received a $10,000 grant in 2013 and Gateway Public Schools. The couple tends to make a lot of grants in the Bay Area, but their education philanthropy is especially national.

Apart from K-12 education, funds have also gone to colleges and universities. Recent funds have gone to schools such as Marquette University, Williams College, and various outfits associated with the University of San Francisco including the UCSF Foundation, which received around $3.3 million in 2013, and around $4.3 million in 2012. Oberndorf is chairman of the University of California San Francisco Foundation. A steady stream of money has also gone to Stanford, from where both Oberndorf and Susan both graduated. In 2010, more than $2 million went to Stanford.

A recent Marquette giving report lists the Oberndorf Foundation at the relatively modest giving level of $10,000 to $25,000. Not sure what the Oberndorf’s connection to the school is, but it may relate to Milwaukee’s status as the home of one of the largest school voucher programs in the United States.

Another interest of the couple is health and the forces are at least in part personal. One of Oberndorf’s late business partners William J. Patterson passed away from a brain tumor a few years ago. The couple has recently supported outfits such as Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Gladstone Institutes, “an independent and nonprofit biomedical research organization whose focus is to better understand, prevent, treat and cure cardiovascular, viral and neurological conditions,” UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Stanford School of Medicine, and Cancer Prevention Institute of California.

Liberals will find some philanthropy to like as well:

Recent grantmaking has also involved the environment, with funds going to Environmental Defense Fund (more than $250,000 in 2013), California Trout, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the Lange Foundation, “a nonprofit organization in Southern California dedicated to saving impounded companion animals.”

The couple’s arts and culture grantmaking has a Bay Area focus and millions have streamed to California Academy of Sciences. Again Oberndorf’s late business partner William J. Patterson may play a role and Patterson once chaired California Academy of Sciences. In 2013, Oberndorfs gave California Academy of Sciences around $1.3 million. In 2012, the outfit received $1.75 million. Other recent support includes grants to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Oberndorf’s interest in school choice and education reform is longstanding. He was a leading supporter of California’s (failed) Proposition 32, an effort to reform the political influence of teacher’s unions, and Oberndorf features in the 1999 book, The Politics of School Choice. In 2003, he explained his views to the Philanthropy Roundtable:

It seems a great injustice to me that only certain members of society–determined primarily by their economic status–are able to choose schools of quality for their children, while others–primarily the urban poor–are forced to send their children to schools that all too frequently destine them to lives of failure. And so in 1993 I helped establish the American Education Reform Foundation, which I chair. Its purpose is to promote, through legislative action, the granting of publicly funded scholarships that will allow primarily low-income parents to opt out of the public school system if it is not working for their children.

America is now behind virtually every developed country in science, math, and other core competencies. During the last two decades, all sorts of well-intentioned people like you and me have spent literally hundreds of millions of our philanthropic dollars to address this problem. And despite all our good intentions, we have not been able to improve educational outcomes in any meaningful, measurable way.

A survey of recent high school graduation rates across the country found only 51 percent of high school students graduated in Newark, 47 percent in Chicago, 43 percent in Milwaukee and Oakland, and 28 percent in Cleveland. While some are quick to claim the culprits are large class sizes and a lack of financial resources, in reality we are spending, on a per pupil basis, amounts in these cities ranging from $7,600 in Oakland to an astounding $14,900 in Newark.

By the time I became involved in the education reform movement, a growing group of individuals, including myself, had become convinced that unless a truly competitive alternative was established to traditional public schools, the educational establishment was simply incapable of systemic and sustainable reform from within. I focus upon the words systemic and sustainable because, unless we spend our philanthropic dollars in a way that is systemic—i.e., having broad impact—and in a way that is sustainable—i.e., not requiring our continuing financial and political support—we are not going to move the needle of education reform in any significant way.

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