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Ben Navarro Donates $1.25 Million to the College of Charleston

Ben Navarro turned a well-connected family and a bachelor’s degree in finance into a $3 billion nest egg in just over 30 years. Formerly a vice president of Citigroup, he left the investment bank to found his own, Sherman Financial Group, which currently owns Credit One Bank. Ben Navarro also owns two tennis clubs, and tried to purchase the Carolina Panthers, North Carolina’s NFL team, but lost it in auction. Today, he and his family live in Charleston, South Carolina.

As a philanthropist, Navarro’s priorities are plain – healthy, well-educated minds. In recent years, he has founded a small string of private schools, a scholarship fund for low-income Charleston County high school students, and a mental health wellness center targeting anxiety and depression.

On March 15, College of Charleston President Andrew Hsu announced that a large donation from Navarro was being given to the college’s teacher education program for the purpose of educating more teachers to work in underserved communities.

“The gift really recognizes our commitment to excellence in public education at all levels,” Hsu said. “It will help us create and support a national signature program.

“As a public institution, we have the responsibility of helping the state to narrow the educational gap,” he continued. “It is our duty to help the underserved communities, or help prepare teachers for the underserved communities.”

South Carolina is currently weathering a heavy teacher shortage, one exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. As of February, five months into the school year, the state was still short more than 500 teachers in all grades. The College of Charleston is working on a plan to attract more students passionate about education, and Ben Navarro’s generous donation will help them recruit those students.

“We already have a lot of strength in terms of faculty and programmatic offerings around teacher education for students coming from underrepresented populations,” said Suzanne Austin, provost and executive vice president of student affairs. “So we already do that work but we’re excited about doing more.”

Editorial credit: Katherine Welles /


New Initiative Will Tackle Disparities in Rural Communities

Four organizations— the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Save the Children, StriveTogether, and Partners for Education at Berea College—have launched a new initiative aimed at bettering the lives of children in rural America.

Called the Rural Accelerator Initiative, the program is designed to provide educational resources to children in pastoral communities that might not otherwise have access to these opportunities. Through a combination of strategic investments, local partnerships, leadership development, and peer learning, the Rural Accelerator Initiative will ensure that these children receive a quality education and graduate from high school either ready for a career or prepared for college.

“We know we can achieve more by working together than apart and have proof from nearly 70 communities across the country that the collective impact of organizations working across sectors can influence outcomes for every child,” said Jennifer Blatz, president and CEO of StriveTogether. “We are excited to bring our proven approach to this initiative and are proud to be part of a landmark effort to accelerate results for youth and families in rural America.”

Over the course of three years, the program will invest a total of $1.2 million in the following focus areas: Perry County, Ky.; Whitley County, Ky.; and Cocke County, Tenn.

“We have the opportunity to harness the expertise of national leaders in education as well as the local communities where we work, to drive progress toward positive outcomes for children in rural America,” said Betsy Zorio, vice president of U.S. programs and advocacy for Save the Children. “We are grateful to our partners for their support, skills, and knowledge and look forward to working together to empower communities to create a successful cradle-to-career pathway for every child in rural America. It’s our ambition to take these learnings and scale to support the nearly two and half million children growing up in poverty in rural communities.”


Oprah Winfrey Gives $13 Million to Morehouse College

On Monday, Oct. 7, philanthropist Oprah Winfrey paid a visit to Atlanta’s Morehouse College to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her scholarship program. While there, the talk show host made a surprise announcement: she would donate an additional $13 million to the Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program, bringing her total investment to $25 million.

Winfrey said she first began donating to the liberal arts college in 1989 because of the institution’s “moral code” and mission of preparing black men to lead lives of leadership and service.

“I felt that the very first time I came here,” said Winfrey. “The money was an offering to support that in these young men. I understand that African American men are an endangered species. They are so misunderstood. They are so marginalized.

“Where and when I can lend support to try to change that image, I do,” she added. “That is what Morehouse is doing. It is saying ‘This is who we really are.’”

According to Morehouse President David Thomas, Oprah’s scholarship program has funded the education of almost 600 recipients.

“I’m grateful to Oprah Winfrey for her generosity,” said Thomas. “I am also feeling hopeful for Morehouse and what it has garnered in terms of philanthropic support with gifts like Oprah’s and Robert Smith’s. I am hopeful that this will also get others to step up with their support of Morehouse, but even more broadly, historically black colleges and universities.”

Oprah Scholar Nathan Rolle, a senior who is majoring in International Studies and minoring in Journalism, said it was a privilege to meet the woman who made his education possible.

“Getting to meet Ms. Winfrey for the first time in my life, taking an individual photo with her—not a lot of people in the world can say that,” he said. “I’ve looked up to Mrs. Winfrey my entire life. This day is the highlight of my Morehouse experience.”


Mellon Foundation Allocates $3.3M to Prison Education

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is investing $3.3 million in prison education programs that are designed to help inmates reintegrate into society.

“We know that higher-education-in-prison programs reduce violence inside prisons, improve incarcerated students’ ties with family and community in advance of parole, reduce rates of recidivism, and interrupt the cycle of intergenerational poverty,” said Eugene Tobin, senior program officer of the Mellon Foundation. “Prison classrooms can and should also be sites of curricular innovation in the humanities and a pipeline for transfer and reintegration services in partnership with universities and philanthropic supporters. College-in-prison programs represent values that should be at the heart of a democratic society.”

The $3.3 million grant will be divided amongst four recipients.

The first recipient is the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which offers inmates at the Otisville Correctional Facility who are eligible for release within five years the opportunity to earn college credits during their incarceration.

The second recipient is the Marymount Manhattan College (also based in New York). Funds will go towards supporting its two- and four-year-degree programs offered to inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. Additional funds will be used to expand these offerings to inmates at the Taconic Correctional Facilities for Women.

The third recipient is California State University, Los Angeles. Not only does Cal State offer BA programs to inmates at Lancaster State Prison, the college also provides post-release services to program participants who wish to complete their degrees at the university’s main campus.

The fourth and final recipient is the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, a national network dedicated to expanding access to higher education in prison and empowering former inmates by providing post-release services.

“Mass incarceration is linked to mass undereducation, but innovative, proven interventions can address both crises,” said Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation. “The Mellon Foundation believes in each and every student’s humanity and sees expanding access to higher education in prison as a public good.”


Education Philanthropy is Headed in a New Direction

A new survey conducted by Grantmakers for Education shows a significant shift in the education initiatives that donors are most interested in.

For the past decade, donors have primarily focused their attention on K-12 reform, which covers issues related to teacher quality, standards, and assessments. However, the latest research shows that donors are less interested in K-12 reform and more interested in areas like social and emotional learning, postsecondary and early childhood education, and equity.

“This survey data makes clear that philanthropies have, collectively, begun to redefine education giving and reform quite profoundly—directing their dollars toward new priorities and dramatically away from the more traditional K-12 issues,” said Celine Coggins, executive director of Grantmakers for Education. “Funders recognize that academic reforms alone are inadequate to the challenge of helping all students—especially disadvantaged students—succeed. They are ensuring those are paired with equity-focused, social-emotional supports that the emerging brain science shows are essential for learning.”

Equity in particular has proven to be one of the fastest growing sectors in education philanthropy. Of the 91 education donors surveyed, 75 percent said that they are committed to advancing equity for disadvantaged populations, such as racial/ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBT community.

“The field of education philanthropy is at an inflection point,” Coggins explained. “We have gleaned many lessons since the first administration of this survey, a decade ago. We are also seeing a loss of faith in the federal government and movement toward local problem solving to ensure all students are given the opportunities they need to be successful.”

“It is a moment that is both tumultuous and exciting for its potential,” she added. “And given the divisive political climate, it is a moment where our collective leadership has never been more necessary.”

To read the full report, click here.

Donation News

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Unveils $2B Philanthropic Fund

Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, with a net worth in the realm of $160 billion. Money like that, wielded philanthropically, can alter the shape of the world. Bill Gates is already doing that, with his anti-disease efforts worldwide. Andrew Carnegie did it by donating nearly 3,000 libraries to towns and cities around the world.

Now, Bezos is making a run at it, with a $2 billion donation to his new “Day 1 Fund”—a two-target foundation to aid low-income communities. One branch is earmarked for homeless families, the other for preschool education.

The first half, called the Day 1 Families Fund, is inspired by a nonprofit in Seattle. Mary’s Place, a family-oriented homeless shelter, has the vision statement of, “No child sleeps outside.” The Fund will issue grants and awards to organizations providing shelter and food to young, impoverished families.

The second half, the Day 1 Academies Fund, is more hands-on. It will operate a network of “tier 1” full-scholarship preschools in low-income areas.

Bezos has been open about his desire to operate both branches like a business as opposed to a nonprofit. This decision has drawn a reasonable amount of criticism from the public.

In a tweet posted on September 13, Bezos explicitly called his potential students “the customer,” which many say shows that he inherently misunderstands education and the way that schools work. Nevertheless, this type of donation can still do a tremendous amount of good. Thus, the public has begrudgingly tolerated his faux pax.

On the same token, it’s also worth noting that $2 billion is a drop in the bucket for Bezos, as it equals a mere one percent of his assets. But it does mark a large upswing in his charitable giving; previous known donations from himself, his wife, and family only amounted to $135 million, a paltry 0.0008 percent. Hopefully, his latest donation marks the beginning of a new trend.


New Gates Foundation Initiative Will Address Poverty

In his endless quest to donate his money almost as fast as he makes it, Bill Gates has announced another philanthropic project. This time, he is taking on systemic poverty.

On Thursday, May 3rd, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that between now and 2022, they intend to spend $158 million on a variety of initiatives, from data collection and research to funding activism and lobbying.

The foundation’s work will be guided by the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, which is housed within the liberal-leaning think tank the Urban Institute. The organization has spent the past two years crafting plans to address systemic inequality in actionable ways. Their solutions involve both businesses and governments.

The money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (to date, the largest private charity organization in the world) will help turn ideas and plans into practicable projects.

“Poverty is like education, where there’s not enough philanthropic resources to take on responsibility, but if you can show how to have a lot more impact, then the policies will benefit from that,” Bill Gates told the Associated Press earlier this year.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose original goals were to improve the quality of education in the U.S. and the world, has expanded its focus to help underserved students outside the classroom as well. This will surely result in a more impactful outcome, given that poverty and education are closely related. It is, after all, hard to do homework if the lights are shut off. But poverty also goes beyond basic survival necessities. In today’s technological age, having access to a computer with internet access is an absolute must.

Over the course of the next few months, it will be exciting to see the difference that this donation will make in the lives of children.

Donation News

Betsy DeVos Pledges to Donate Salary to Charity

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has come under plenty of criticism in her politics, including freely admitting that she and her family have spent millions of dollars in purchasing political advantage. But perhaps a recent move has bought her some grace for that past.

DeVos’s yearly salary as secretary of education is $199,700. This year, she announced that she intends to donate that entire amount in equal parts to four charities: Kids Hope USA, Vision to Learn, Dreams Soar, and the Special Olympics.

Kids Hope USA is a faith-based alternative to Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The mentorship program puts adult volunteers in schools to support individual students who are struggling. Vision to Learn provides free exams and eyeglasses to students in underserved communities. The organization claims that two million schoolchildren are in need of glasses that they don’t have. Dreams Soar is a campaign to help girls and young women work towards careers in STEM and aviation, founded by Shaesta Waiz. Waiz has flown solo around the globe to inspire young women. The Special Olympics is a competitive sports organization for people with disabilities.

Just shy of $50,000 each, these generous donations are much appreciated. Organizers from the Special Olympics say they have only a “verbal commitment” from DeVos, but according to spokeswoman Liz Hill, the ethics department of the Education Department has officially cleared the private donations.

There’s been no comment from the White House on DeVos’s charitable actions. However, one of the recipients may raise eyebrows in the Trump administration. The Special Olympics in particular are targets of the newest budget proposal, potentially stripping them of $12.5 million in federal funding. DeVos’s $50,000 donation ($0.05 million) may not make much of a dent in that loss, but it could be seen as implied criticism.

DeVos has previously been quite open about not needing her paycheck, so it’s good of her to pass it on to those who do.


Franklin & Marshall College Establishes Revolutionary New Educational Program, Thanks to Generous Gift By Alumnus

Franklin & Marshall College has introduced a radical new program that is designed to help students develop the characteristics that are most often associated with success. The program, called the Mehlman Talent Initiative, is funded by Ken Mehlman, who earned his B.A. from Franklin & Marshall College in 1988.

Throughout his many years as a successful businessman, Mehlman has found that grit is the number one attribute that all successful people have in common. And he’s not alone in this theory.

An article published in The Muse lists “resilience” as the number one quality that all successful people have in common. Even Business Insider credits “persistence” as a collective trait that the world’s most successful people share.

But how does one teach the qualities of resilience and persistence (commonly referred to as “grit”)? That’s what Mehlman is trying to figure out.

The entire focus of the Mehlman Talent Initiative involves studying the ways in which high-achieving, disadvantaged students have overcome some of life’s most difficult challenges. These challenges range from poverty to disability to illness and even discrimination.

“At a time of increased global competition, accelerating technological evolution, and rapidly shifting business, political, and social environments, resilience and the ability to rebound and reinvent are critical,” Mehlman stated. “Young men and women who have already overcome adversity bring different life experiences and are well positioned for 21st century success, but they need practical tools to flourish. This initiative will support these students and provide a framework for the rest of us to learn from them.”

Daniel R. Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College, couldn’t be more excited about the program. He praised Mr. Mehlman’s dedication to the project, and even likened it to an empowerment program.

“As a Trustee, Ken Mehlman has been deeply involved in our collective decision-making to pursue an expanded financial aid strategy for talented students that has reshaped the College dramatically in the past decade, making an F&M education available to many more first-generation, lower- and middle-income students from all across the country,” Porterfield stated. “With this tremendous gift—half of which is dedicated to financial aid—he further enables the College to cultivate the greatness of high-achieving students so that they will be empowered to achieve big goals in their lives and make disproportionately positive contributions to society. The Mehlman Talent Initiative will continue to make F&M a stronger school and help us create an even stronger community, and we are immensely appreciative of Ken’s support.”


The Nonprofit That Uses Scavenger Hunts to Test Life Skills

Room to Read is a nonprofit that has been largely focused on global literacy since it’s inception. But since the year 2000, they have also developed a strong focus on girls’ education in countries like India, Cambodia, and Zambia.

They operate programs in nine countries around the world, and they’ve come to realize that life skills such as negotiation, self-confidence, and persistence are important for girls who might have to struggle to keep their education going. To that end, they’ve developed a study to test their students for those skills.

The study is actually built around a three-day scavenger hunt. The idea is that, by having each girl get at least 10 of 30 listed items, they can gauge where she falls on a number of these skills. Getting a toe-ring, for example, illustrates negotiation and trustworthiness, because for women in some parts of India, toe-rings are the equivalent of a wedding band.

It’s a novel way of doing things. But by choosing items that wouldn’t be too easy or hard to find, they think they’ve struck on a system that will inform them about what level these girls are at in these critical life skills.

Self-reporting by answering questions doesn’t always give an accurate accounting of something as ephemeral as self-confidence, especially in girls aged 11-13 who don’t necessarily have the life experience to gauge that. But by assigning tasks that use the skills in question, they can more accurately measure those skills by looking at the end result.

The study involved 2,500 girls at 60 schools. The study will be repeated again in 2018 in order to build off the baseline data collected in 2016. Hopefully, it works as expected and becomes a tool that Room to Read can use to help instill these skills in their students. Maybe it will even allow the girls to continue their education after they age out of the nonprofit’s programs.