Bill and Susan Oberndorf Foundation: Grants for K-12 Education

OVERVIEW: The Bill and Susan Oberndorf Foundation is the philanthropic vehicle of William Oberndorf and his wife Susan. A large share of their funding has been directed at the California Bay Area, but they have given nationwide to charters as well as education reform advocacy groups. Their foundation supports school choice, and Oberndorf himself co-founded like-minded outfits such as the American Education Reform Foundation.

IP TAKE: The Oberndorfs have been deep into education reform for years, and their foundation has often given to initiatives with the potential for large, systemic impact. However, the foundation does not have much of a web presence or a clear way to get in touch. 

PROFILE: William (Bill) Oberndorf is a highly successful investment manager. He and his wife Susan move their philanthropy through the Bill and Susan Oberndorf Foundation. Historically, Oberndorf has shown interest in leveraging philanthropic dollars in a way that has broad impact and is sustainable. The Oberndorfs have a strong interest in the Bay Area, but have supported education outfits across the country.

In a recent year, the foundation held close to $80 million in assets and gave away around $8 million, which was distributed to over 50 different organizations. Recent grants have ranged in size from a few thousand dollars to over $1 million.

A significant focus of the couple is education reform. As Oberndorf told Philanthropy Roundtable, “unless a truly competitive alternative was established to traditional public schools, the educational establishment [would be] simply incapable of systemic and sustainable reform from within." In a separate statement, he has also reportedly (as per Education Week) praised vouchers and charters because they "inject competition into the equation." 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 and having provided ‘great strategic guidance’ to the American Federation for Children.” 

To that end, Oberndorf co-founded the American Education Reform Foundation in the early 1990s. The ERF works to "bring about systemic and sustainable reform by promoting broad-based parental choice that aids low-income families." 

Recent education philanthropy by the couple has fallen along similar lines and involved quite a number of outfits, both in and beyond the San Francisco region. Six-to-seven-figure sums have gone to the likes of:

  • the Foundation for Excellence in Education; 
  • the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, "an American education reform organization headquartered in Indianapolis"; 
  • the Alliance for School Choice, which Oberndorf himself co-founded and where he is chairman emeritus and a board member; and 
  • the Center for Education Reform, whose mission is to "accelerate the growth of the education reform movement in ways that make available to families new and meaningful choices." 

Bay Area support has gone to charters such as KIPP Bay Area Schools and Gateway Public Schools.

Oberndorf has also committed funds to other areas of K-12, and to postsecondary education, particularly towards efforts aimed at boosting achievement and opportunity for students from low-income areas. Recent support along these lines has gone to:

  • the San Francisco Education Fund;
  • College Spring, which "partners with schools and community organizations to help students from low-income backgrounds boost SAT scores, navigate college admissions and financial aid, and confidently pursue college degrees"; 
  • Breakthrough Collaborative, which "puts low-income middle school students on the path to college and inspires high school and college students to become educators"; 
  • buildOn, which "runs youth service afterschool programs in United States high schools, and builds schools in developing countries; and 
  • BASIC Fund, a privately-funded organization providing partial-tuition scholarships to low-income families across the Bay Area.

It's worth mentioning that big money has also gone to postsecondary institutions including Stanford University, Williams College, and the University of San Francisco Foundation, though most (if not all) of the foundation's higher ed recipients appear to be organizations that one or both of the Oberndorfs either attended or is professionally affiliated with. 

Beyond education, the couple's philanthropy has in the past supported domestic policy research and advocacy, medical research, museums, international policy work, environmental protection, and social welfare (among many others).

The biggest challenge fundraisers will face with Oberndorf will be making initial inroads with the foundation, as it does not provide a clear avenue for getting in touch with the couple (the foundation’s address as per a recent tax filing is listed below). Also, as mentioned above, keep an eye on this organization’s giving levels and how widely funds are distributed going forward to have a better sense of the playing field.

PEOPLE:

CONTACT:

Bill and Susan Oberndorf Foundation
615 Front Street
San Francisco, CA 94111