Quant Philanthropy: Tapping Hedge Fund Riches, a Data-Driven Couple Ramps Up Their Giving



John and Laura Overdeck come from a world of numbers, so it’s no surprise that the couple has infused their burgeoning education foundation with a deep respect for data.

John is the co-founder and co-chair of Two Sigma, an investment management firm. He’s the son of a mathematician and received degrees in mathematics and statistics at Stanford University before embarking on a lucrative career as a “quant” on Wall Street. There, he built a hedge fund that relies heavily on data and computer modeling. Laura, who studied physics at Princeton, runs the Bedtime Math Foundation, which aims to get parents to tackle fun math problems with their kids outside of homework. That respect for data and numbers evident in the couple’s professional lives has carried over into their giving.

The Overdeck Family Foundation has grown steadily since its start in 2011, and carved out a role for itself with its holistic, data-driven approach to education giving. The couple’s methodology, coupled with John’s estimated net worth of around $6 billion, make the Overdecks interesting philanthropists.

Broadly speaking, the mission of the foundation is to open doors for children by measurably enhancing education both inside and outside the classroom. For Laura Overdeck, that boils down to supporting work that allows kids to unlock their potential.

This basic principle drove the couple’s early giving and eventually led them to start the foundation, Laura Overdeck said. The pair started out in philanthropy by giving to two organizations that they saw as highly effective. For Laura, that was Governor’s School, a summer program for talented kids run in 19 states. For John, that was the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins.

As they got more involved in philanthropy, though, it dawned on the Overdecks that giving as individuals wasn’t going to be enough.

“We started to realize that there were many things out there unlocking potential for lots of kids, and that it was going to be far more than we could handle as two people with a 24-hour day,” said Overdeck. “That’s why, 10 years ago, we started bringing in other people, and that’s really how we built the team.”

The Overdeck Family Foundation now has a 16-person staff. Its annual giving has grown steadily each year, reaching $34.5 million in 2018. Grants average about $250,000 in size and typically last a year, though the foundation is giving out more multi-year grants than in the past.

The foundation maintains several portfolio areas supporting work on early childhood education, teacher preparation, student-centered instructional methods and programs that provide educational enrichment outside of school. The Overdecks were instrumental in picking the areas the foundation would fund, which draw on a belief that many of the challenges within education are interconnected.

“What you start to realize is that so many of these problems require holistic solutions. You can’t nibble on the edge from one direction and think that you’re going to move the needle,” Overdeck said. “You kind of have to do all of that at once. That’s why we realized we want to take that vision but work on it from multiple angles at one time.”

That meant investing in teacher preparation, because the best content and curriculum in the classroom mean nothing if teachers don’t know how to teach it. Early childhood learning became a priority to prevent kids from showing up to kindergarten already behind. The Overdecks also wanted to make sure kids had enriching experiences outside of school that complimented what they learn in the classroom.

“We Believe in Numbers

Data is the other major funding area for the Overdecks. The foundation has a “Data for Action” portfolio that supports organizations and researchers who make data accessible to improve practices and policies for kids and their families. Recently, the foundation backed Opportunity Insights, a research institute and think tank based at Harvard University that is using big data to find methods to address poverty. The portfolio also enhances the foundation’s collection and evaluation of data from grantees.

Data is more than just a funding area for the Overdecks. It’s at the core of their philosophy as philanthropists. In practice, that means maintaining a heavy internal emphasis on data at the foundation. The Overdecks were intentional when it came to building a team that shared their fervor for truth and science. The foundation also emphasizes evaluation in funding for grantees.

The emphasis on data comes from both the head and the heart, Overdeck says. “First of all, we love numbers. We both love numbers, and we’re very comfortable swimming in them,” she said.  “Also, from the head, we believe in numbers. We believe when you really drill down into things to see whether they’re working, you have to get quantitative.”

“The goal is to affect as many kids as possible with finite resources. Even if you pool everybody together, it’s just a finite amount of resources and hours in a day. You just want to make sure it’s being directed to the highest impact that you can.”

“I think data are important because, frankly, we’re just people who have been blessed to have a lot of resources,” Overdeck said. The couple wanted to make sure they weren’t imposing their opinions on others through their giving. It was important that their work be grounded in facts.

Overdeck also sees data as a way to correct for blind spots she’s observed in philanthropy.

“One of the problems with philanthropy is that everyone is so well-intentioned that when something’s not working, it’s very hard for everybody to come to terms with that, and maybe cut the funding and shift funding to something else,” she said. “You need the data to move people along, because the thing is, it’s easier to feel good than to do good. We really want to do good. We really want to have an impact. The only way that that can happen is if people become aware of the facts.”

Overdeck alludes to big societal challenges like adult illiteracy, unemployment, hunger and infant mortality, problems the country has tried to solve for decades with little result. She thinks some of that stems from attachment to interventions that just aren’t working, or maybe that worked in one context but didn’t when replicated elsewhere. Data reveal where a solution went wrong and whether it should be salvaged or discarded.

“I think that really is one of the toughest questions,” Overdeck said. “When a grantee is working on something and it’s not working, you face this very difficult question of, ‘Did we not go far enough? Did we not put in enough money and enough people on the ground and give them enough training? Should we do more, or would that be throwing good money after bad?’”

For the Overdecks, numbers provide answers to the tough questions. The couple’s rigorous focus on what works and what doesn’t is similar to another pair of philanthropist we cover at Inside Philanthropy: Laura and John Arnold, who are also tapping a hedge fund fortune in a quest to identify and scale more effective interventions to longstanding societal problems.

Looking to the Future

Day-to-day, Anu Malipatil, the foundation's vice president of education, helms the organization. The couple doesn’t have any plans at the moment to take on the foundation’s work full-time. However, they do join staff for monthly grantmaking meetings, where they discuss grantees, proposals, big ideas and societal challenges they’re trying to solve.

As for the future, Overdeck hopes to see results from the foundation’s work. “I think it gets back to this idea that I just don’t see the needle moving on anything,” she said.  “If we could get the needle to move on just one thing, I’d be thrilled.”

In conversation, she seems most excited by simple ideas that yield big results, like allowing kids to move onto more complex lessons only when they’ve mastered the basics. “In schools, you can’t learn to multiply, if you’re not comfortable with adding. You can’t do algebra if you’re not comfortable with fractions or division. You really cannot go learn that next thing until you’ve learned the first thing,” she said. “When you really grasp that idea and then think about the money we pour into our schools every day trying to deny those facts. It is just heartbreaking.”

“If we could have every school somehow function in a way that just fixes that problem. No one is taught to multiply until they’re really solid on adding. That one little thing is revolutionary.”