Sometimes it can feel like the many hedge fund guys backing charter schools and ed reform groups are basically all alike. You know the type: They believe deeply in education but think public school systems need to be blown up and rebuilt from scratch; they're enthralled with the idea that market forces and consumer choice can boost education; and they're keen on bringing better metrics to bear on the performance of students and teachers to deliver the kinds of data they often rely on in their day jobs of making investments.
We'll leave it to others to say whether this worldview is helpful or not. What we find interesting is the altogether different issue of how, exactly, so many finance types get drawn into big time education philanthropy in the first place. And what we've found so far is that paths to writing checks in this arena vary widely.
Take the billionaire Larry Robbins, who Forbes has called "one of the hottest hedge fund managers in recent years." I've written about Robbins before, regarding his recent $7.5 million gift to his alma mater, Wharton. What made the gift unusual is that Robbins is only in his mid-40s, a good 20 years younger than the normal profile. After some digging, I discovered a pretty robust resume of education giving for the young philanthropist, who's current worth around $2.2 billion—a fortune that's very likely rise in coming years.
What's Robbins into and what can we expect from his education giving?
For one, Robbins is already quite an outspoken education advocate in New York. He's chairman of the board at KIPP New York and Relay Graduate School of Education. What's more, he's head of the Education Committee at the Robin Hood Foundation. In an interview at Robin Hood, Robbins has talked about the origins of his education philanthropy and a key personal connection that helps explain his giving.
Back in his undergraduate days in the 1990s, Robbins befriended fellow UPenn student Mike Feinberg. While Robbins and some of his other pals took the Wall Street route, Feinberg was deep into education advocacy. A first post-grad job at Teach for America eventually led him to co-found KIPP, the top charter school organization. Once Robbins graduated from Wharton, his first "real check" went to Feinberg in support of his ventures and the two have been linked ever since.
Apart from Robbins' board memberships and connection to Feinberg, he's also funded Harlem Village Academies, Harlem Children's Zone and the Posse Foundation. While his gifts to KIPP and Robin Hood have totalled in the millions, his gifts to these other outlets have been generally under $100,000 annually. He has, however, been a very steady funder of them.
Robbins is also deep into fighting childhood poverty, and organizations that are able to meld that with education have also received funding.
The important thing to remember about Robbins' philanthropy is that it is only just beginning and he's yet to build a very big fortune, at least by Wall Street standards. In one recent year, the Robbins Foundation gave around $8 million.
What's more, most of Robbins' giving is on a local and regional level in New York and Illinois. He's not yet really playing in the ed philanthropy big leagues, at the scale of some of the donors we track.
Still, Robbins' level of passion for education is super high, and there's a lot of money here. This is an ed funder to be watched carefully.