George Kaiser


NET WORTH: $7.8 billion

SOURCE OF WEALTH: Kaiser-Francis Oil Company, BOK Financial Corporation

FUNDING AREAS: Education, Poverty, Tulsa Community

OVERVIEW: Kaiser is a major proponent of early childhood education, and programs that attempt to break the generational cycle of poverty. He has given away more than half a billion over the course of his lifetime, mostly through the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which gives away nearly $50 million in grants per year, and is currently endowed with more than $3 billion in assets. A signatory of the Giving Pledge, Kaiser has said he will devote nearly all his wealth to charitable causes. 

BACKGROUND: Kaiser was born to a Jewish family that fled Nazi Germany and settled in Oklahoma. After attending Harvard for both his undergraduate and MBA degrees, he planned to enter the foreign service, but returned to Oklahoma to work for the Kaiser-Francis Oil Company, which was started by his uncle and parents after his father had a heart attack. Under his control, the company quickly grew into a major regional player in the oil and gas exploration business. It was not until he ventured into the financial world that he really struck it rich, though, when he bought the Bank of Oklahoma out of federal receivership in 1990, a move that instantly landed him on the Forbes 400 list. He has since grown the bank into an operation that spans nine states and manages nearly $30 billion in assets, helping to make him one of the richest men in America.


EDUCATION: Kaiser has given more than $120 million to the University of Oklahoma, $70 million to the University of Tulsa, $9 million to Oklahoma State, $4 million to Tulsa Community College, and $5 million to his alma mater, Harvard. Much of this money has gone to medical schools for endowing faculty and general operation, though some has also found its way toward things like student loan forgiveness programs and performing arts centers. Although the biggest chunk of his money has gone to higher education, Kaiser also partnered with Teach for America to bring the program to Tulsa, funds a number of K-12 educational programs and charter schools, including KIPP: Tulsa.

The area about which he has been most outspoken, however, has been for early childhood education programs. His foundation has shelled out more than $30 million to partner with Educare, a national ECE organization on at-risk children, to build facilities in Oklahoma. While most of the foundation’s money stays local to Oklahoma, ECE programs represent one funding area where out-of-state non-profits have an opportunity for funding. Examples: the First Five Years Fund in Chicago, which received $250,000 in 2012, and the FPG Child Development Institute in North Carolina, which was awarded more than $300,000 that same year. Another organization called Reading Partners in Oakland, CA, got $2 million, and the Stand for Children education advocacy group got $1 million.

TULSA COMMUNITY: Kaiser helped establish the Tulsa Community Foundation in 1998 with investments from a number of local philanthropists. His family foundation is the organization’s largest donor (giving more than $15 million in 2012 alone), and at around $4 billion in assets, the Community Foundation has become one of the largest community foundations in the country. In addition to the support there, Kaiser donates to just about every kind of local charitable organization imaginable, including schools, arts organizations, organizations that provide human, child, and community services, and those that provide upkeep for public spaces. In fact, if you’re a non-profit in Oklahoma, and particularly in Tulsa, you probably stand a better chance of getting a grant than not getting one. Don’t expect a huge handout, though; some grants are as small as $250, and the higher amounts rarely exceed $100,000. But many, if not most, of the organizations that apply get something.

Kaiser is also a major benefactor of Oklahoma’s Jewish community.

POLICY & ADVOCACY: Given Kaiser’s philosophy regarding equality of opportunity, it’s no real surprise that he was a major donor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, and even functioned as a campaign bundler. He is a strong advocate for early childhood education, and as mentioned, has given at least $1 million to the educational advocacy group Stand for Children. He also supports other organizations, such as the Birth to Five Policy Alliance, and organizations that support more progressive policies in general, such as the Center for American Progress, PolicyLink, and ProPublica. Though Kaiser has made much of his money in the oil and gas industry, he’s also lobbied the Oklahoma State Legislature to reduce tax credits to oil and gas companies in favor of spending the money on early childhood education.

LOOKING FORWARD: With more than $3 billion in assets, and perhaps another $10 billion or more coming, the George Kaiser Family Foundation is going to have a lot of grantmaking to do in the coming years and decades. And while much of his giving will surely continue to remain focused around Tulsa, the Tulsa Community Foundation only needs so much of an endowment, and eventually those billions will have to find other outlets.

An increased focus on early childhood education programs seems to be only a matter of time, as does an expanded version of the foundation’s program to break the generational cycle of poverty by focusing on the female incarceration rate in Oklahoma, with the goal of reducing sentences and increasing rehabilitation options, particularly for those who have committed nonviolent offenses.

Kaiser has also cited access to healthcare as something that is closely linked with education when it comes to addressing poverty, and has provided major funding for medical schools in the area. So the next logical step might be supporting health clinics and non-profit hospitals in Oklahoma on a larger scale. He’s also made a few contributions to international development funds, so we may also see a larger push to address poverty through childhood health and education in developing nations.


George Kaiser Family Foundation

7030 S. Yale, Suite 600

Tulsa, OK 74136