What's Weird About This Picture? About That Big Koch Money for "Fragile Communities"

We love "man bites dog" stories at Inside Philanthropy. It's always fun to sort through facts that just don't seem to add up. 

Like, say, when one of the biggest all-time donors to conservative and libertarian causes, the Koch family, suddenly starts to give lots of money to help African Americans—like it just did with a huge gift to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. 

Huh?

This storyline dates back at least to 2014, when Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation made a $25 million gift to the United Negro College Fund. 

That's a nice chunk of change by any measure, but if the Koch family were really interested in advancing racial equity you'd think they wouldn't have given a fortune over decades to groups trying to downsize just about every government program that helps African Americans, including Pell Grants, as well as to overturn civil rights laws.  

On the other hand, maybe this giving isn't so mystifying, after all. In February 2015, the market research firm Harris Poll published its 16th annual ranking of the America's most- and least-loved corporations.

The most loved? Wegmans, a New York-based grocer. The least loved? Goldman Sachs. The seventh least loved? Koch Industries.

It isn't much of a secret that the Koch brothers have a branding problem on their hands. Any responsible business owner would be rightfully concerned when the American public "hates"—such a harsh word; "loves least" is so much gentler—their company slightly less than Halliburton (number five on the list) but more than Comcast (number eight).

And what better way to boost one's brand than through feel-good philanthropy?

Last year, the New Yorker published a piece looking at how the brothers' recent philanthropic efforts, particularly in the area of criminal justice reform, are part of an "extraordinary exercise in rebranding," according to David Axelrod, the former political adviser to President Barack Obama. One of their earliest fans was Axelrod's former boss:

Although the Kochs and their political network spent some $400 million trying to defeat Obama and other Democrats in 2012, the President, during an NAACP convention last summer, spoke appreciatively of the brothers’ efforts on prison sentencing. When the audience responded scornfully to the mention of the Kochs, Obama scolded them: "No—you’ve got to give them credit. You’ve got to call it like you see it."

Which brings us to the latest gift by the Kochs. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) has launched a new center committed to expanding educational, social, and economic opportunities in fragile communities through original research and direct engagement with residents. The new Center for Advancing Opportunity is supported by a $25.6 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries.

The new center will provide undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, and grants to faculty working to establish "university-based research centers on education, criminal justice, entrepreneurship, and other issues impacting opportunity in fragile communities." The center will also partner with Gallup to capture the sentiments of individuals living in these communities.

"This is a momentous partnership. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are uniquely positioned to lead the field in this research," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of TMCF…We are proud to come together with the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries to help members of these communities identify and study the challenges most significant to them."

Proud? That seems gratuitous, even for a press release, given how Koch money has so often been arrayed against the advocates and policy groups who've historically stuck up for "fragile communities." 

Regardless, another reason this big gift seems so weird is because it has nothing to do with the rest of the Koch family's higher ed giving, which has been laser-focused on advancing libertarian scholarship and activity on campuses. Some $200 million in grants has gone for such work through the Charles Koch Foundation.