Comcast CEO's Biggest Cause Is... Squash?

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article did not fully explain the nature of the squash-related programs that Brian and Aileen Roberts fund, giving the impression that these programs were perhaps of relatively little merit when compared to other causes the couple could be funding. The revised version below attempts to correct that misconception. 

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts isn’t known for being particularly philanthropic. Sure, he and his wife Aileen have donated around $15 million charity over the past 15 years through their foundation, and probably some $20-$25 million in total if you add in their direct contributions. But that’s really not all that much when you consider that his net worth has fluctuated between $600 million and $1.2 billion ever since he inherited the bulk of the company his father co-founded in 1999. He's not as miserly as the infamous Rupert Murdoch, but certainly nowhere near as generous as his cable-owning colleagues Ted Turner and Sumner Redstone.

When you dig a little deeper into where the money is going, however, it doesn't really get any better. 

First, a significant portion of that $15 million has gone to select schools that appear to have family ties. The Germantown Academy prep school has gotten the lion’s share—in 2011 alone, the organization received $100,000 in grant money, and approximately $1.8 million in stock that included Comcast, Amazon, and Google. Brown University has gotten at least $600,000, the William Penn Charter School, $250,000, and the University of Pennsylvania has received support as well. While we can’t really say anything negative about this, or that it’s unexpected, these aren’t community colleges or programs for at-risk youth; they’re prep schools and Ivy League institutions.

Other major gifts have gone to create a state-of-the-art cancer center at Penn with a focus on proton therapy, and to the Barnes Foundation, an organization that houses fine art collections, offers educational programs, and has a horticultural center. The former was prompted by Aileen’s battle with breast cancer and treatment at Penn, and totaled $15 million, though the gift was made jointly with Brian’s parents. The latter received over $1 million worth of Comcast stock in 2011, and again Aileen played a key role, as she serves on the organization’s board of directors.

Aside from these, however, the cause that seems to have gotten the most support is... squash. And not the vegetable, either. Roberts’ cause of choice is a sport that has traditionally been dominated by the wealthy.

Roberts has long been an avid squash player, and a good one at that, winning medals in numerous Maccabiah Games, the sporting competition that brings people of Jewish descent from all over the world to Israel. To that end, he’s made regular donations to Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel, as well as organizations such as U.S. Squash, National Urban Squash, and Squash Smarts.

These donations also tend to be much larger than most of the others his foundation makes, with the exception of those mentioned above. Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel has received numerous contributions of $50,000 or more, and the squash organizations the Robertses support routinely see donations of $15,000-$20,000. Contrast this with most of the educational, arts, and community organizations his foundation supports, which are lucky to get $5,000 or $10,000.

This isn't to say that these squash programs aren't a worthy cause. As Tim Wyant, the Executive Director of the National Urban Squash Education Association explains, "much of the family's giving to squash-related organizations has been focused on community programs that use squash as a hook to provide educational opportunities to children from low-income families."

Tying mentoring and academic tutoring to sports is a proven method, and in this case it makes particular sense--for better or worse, kids that excel in sports like squash often have an advantage getting into top tier schools. So helping disadvantaged students succeed academically while also giving them a skill that many top colleges find both attactive and hard to come by is a real recipe for creating opportunities for these kids that they may not get otherwise. 

It’s not as if the Robertses are putting an obscene amount of money toward squash programs either; it’s just that their overall philanthropic profile is pretty small, so it makes the support for squash programs seem relatively large. And that's the bigger picture here--many of their contemporaries with similar assets are giving away a lot more, and have been doing it for years.

Whatever the reason for this, there are a few bright spots—most notably that the Robertses' giving has been increasing in recent years. Even if you remove some of the largest donations, like the stock gifts to the Barnes Foundation and Germantown Academy, their yearly giving has still risen from less than half a million ten years ago to well over $1 million per year since 2008. The assets they hold in their foundation have also been increasing, from less than $9 million in 2009 to around $24 million today. So hopefully we'll see more giving in the Roberts family future.