Meet the Non-Catholic Patron Saints

Robert W. Wilson speaks with a calm, almost gentle, voice. With his wire rim glasses and closely cropped gray beard, Wilson could easily be mistaken for a senior professor at a small liberal arts college. But Wilson is not an academic. He is a legendarily successful Wall Street investor. Retired since 1986, the 83-year-old Wilson now devotes much of his time to philanthropy.

Among his many achievements, Wilson is the single largest benefactor of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York. Since 2007, he has donated over $30 million to inner-city Catholic education.

He is also an atheist.

“I remember the first time I had lunch with Cardinal Egan,” says Wilson, a touch impishly. “We were finishing up, and he said, ‘Well, now that you’ve given all this money to our schools, I should try to convert you.’ I said to him, ‘Well, Cardinal, if you do, I suppose I should try to convert you. The only problem is that if I succeed, you’ll lose your job.’”

Wilson belongs to an elite order: non-Catholic donors who are the patron saints of inner-city Catholic schools.

“It Was Just a Form Letter”
“I never gave money to educational institutions until 2007,” says Wilson. “Most of the rich people I know were already giving a lot of money to education—charter schools, private schools, colleges, universities. I decided that there were plenty of people in this field. I chose to direct my resources elsewhere.”

Wilson plans to give away 70 percent of his net worth before he dies. “My primary interest has been conservation,” Wilson told in December 2007. He is drawn to “the idea that but for my money, this building or piece of land or that animal would be gone.” Wilson describes himself as a “substantial donor” to the World Monuments Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Over the last 10 years, his contributions to charity have totaled about $500 million; to reach his goal, he believes he will need to give away another $100 million or so.

Wilson’s philanthropy is born of a fortune he earned in a long and storied career on Wall Street. He started investing in 1949 with a $15,000 loan from his parents. Middling returns marred his first years. Around 1963, he began investing in jet aircraft technology and commercial carriers. From there, he enjoyed a series of spectacular successes. By the time he retired at age 59, he was worth $225 million.

Wilson was a masterful hedger whose career has been compared to those of George Soros and Warren Buffett. “Wilson’s investment strategy was to go both long and short,” notes financial author Brett Fromson. “Long because he believed in the long-term future of America, and short because he never wanted to be wiped out in a downturn.” “I was always net long,” adds Wilson, “because I never wanted to get up in the morning hoping that things would be getting worse.”

Catholic schools were brought to Wilson’s attention by what must be history’s most outrageously successful direct-mail fundraising letter. “I got this letter from Susan George, the executive director of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund,” Wilson explains. “It was just a form letter from a mass mailing. It pointed out how little Catholic schools cost per student—and how superior their results are.”

“Well,” Wilson continues, “I checked it out, and discovered that the Catholic schools really don’t get much support other than from Catholics who support the Catholic Church. I decided that this is one group of schools that I could support. Their enrollment has declined precipitously in the last 20 years, and I thought seeing these schools just disappear would be intolerable. Worst of all, nobody seemed to be doing much about it—including the Catholics themselves.”

The direct-mail fundraising letter yielded a $22.5 million contribution to the Inner-City Scholarship Fund. It was the single largest donation to Catholic schools in the history of the Archdiocese of New York. It funded scholarships that enabled more than 3,000 low-income students to attend inner-city Catholic schools.

To commemorate the occasion, Cardinal Egan hosted a ceremony at Immaculate Conception School on Manhattan’s East 14th Street, across the street from Stuyvesant Town. “I am an atheist,” Wilson said, but the gift “is about getting an education. The donation has nothing to do with religion.” When he took the podium, Cardinal Egan disagreed—politely.

A Culture of Performance
Peter T. Grauer speaks quickly and precisely. There is a note of urgency in his voice. Partly it is a manifestation of his commitment to Catholic education; he is the president of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund. Partly it’s because he’s speaking during a 15-minute break between sessions. It’s the annual board meeting at Bloomberg LP. Grauer is chairman of the board.

“I’m not Catholic,” says Grauer. “I grew up in a household that was Presbyterian and Episcopalian. My mother was one and my father was the other. I don’t really remember who was which. I went to Sunday school at both places, but these days I don’t spend a lot of time in church, I’m ashamed to say.”

“But,” Grauer quickly adds, “what I care about is the kids. I want to make sure they have an opportunity to get a good education. I believe that the delivery mechanism in Catholic schools is really good. It equips these kids to ultimately go on to higher education and become productive citizens—maybe even work for Bloomberg. I don’t think too much about whether a school or a donor or a student is Catholic or non-Catholic. I just think about rallying the troops to raise as much money as we can to make sure these kids have a decent opportunity.”

A range of studies, past and present, validates Grauer’s point. In 1982, James Coleman co-authored High School Achievement, which found that, after adjusting for family background, Catholic high schools consistently outperformed public high schools on every measure of academic achievement. Those findings were validated in 1993, when three researchers published a highly regarded study, Catholic Schools and the Common Good, which detailed the benefits of Catholic education, especially among at-risk populations.

More recent evidence has further buttressed the case for the superiority of Catholic education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—sometimes called “the nation’s report card”—is widely considered the gold standard among student achievement tests. In 2008, it released a report on long-term trends in reading (1971–2008) and mathematics (1973–2008). In each category, and for every age group, students in Catholic schools outperformed students in public schools. In 2006, NAEP assessments in civics and U.S. history found that Catholic schools again significantly outperformed public schools. The list goes on.

 Why Do They Do It?

 A culture of performance

Catholic schools have long been recognized for their superior academic performance, particularly among low-income and minority student populations. Their long record of getting results attracts philanthropic support from donors of all faiths.

A moment of crisis

From coast to coast, hundreds of schools are being closed, particularly in the inner cities. Many donors recognize the vital contributions of the nation’s largest non-public school system—and are working to preserve it.

 A fresh set of eyes

Viewing the schools from the outside, non-Catholic donors are well-positioned to spot inefficiencies and opportunities that Catholics might miss. And lacking a spiritual relationship with church leaders, they are more comfortable demanding transparency—and results.

 A personal matter

Some non-Catholics support Catholic schools as an expression of their faith, while others do it to honor the memory of a friend. Some see it as in their long-term economic self-interest, while others (those married to Catholics) hope to maintain domestic tranquility.

 An invitation to innovation

The Cristo Rey Network may very well be the most exciting development in American private education. Donors of many faiths are drawn to this promising model, and are helping to scale the network nationwide.

A spur to competition

One reason non-Catholic donors support Catholic schools is because they believe that competition from a vibrant private and parochial school sector (alongside a thriving charter school sector) will improve the performance of traditional public schools.

A challenge to Catholics

A number of non-Catholic donors view their efforts as a sort of matching grant, a challenge that they hope will inspire even greater philanthropic commitment from Catholics themselves.

These achievements are all the more remarkable given that Catholic schools serve an increasingly low-income, minority, and non-Catholic student population. The trend lines are striking. According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), in 1970, minority students accounted for just over 10 percent of the Catholic school population. Today, minority students make up nearly 30 percent of the Catholic school population. Similarly, non-Catholic student enrollment has risen from under 3 percent in 1970 to almost 15 percent today.

“Now, there’s a very simple reason why a foundation with a definite Jewish background—you might even call it a Jewish foundation—gives to Catholic schools,” says Donn Weinberg, chairman of the Baltimore-area Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. “It’s that the Catholic schools in Baltimore and across the country take all comers. They’re educating poor kids in Baltimore—predominantly from black families. In other American cities, they serve mostly Latino families. Either way, these are usually kids from very low-income families.”

“There is another, somewhat intangible, benefit to Catholic schools,” Weinberg adds. “Part of their mission is to impart American civic norms and values to their students. Of course, they’re not the only schools that do this. But they definitely focus on the character, as well as the minds, of their students.”

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation ranks among the 20 largest foundations in the country, with assets of nearly $2.5 billion and annual giving of almost $100 million. It is dedicated to assisting the poor by funding direct service organizations; within its mission, an emphasis is placed on supporting the elderly and the Jewish community. “By funding Catholic schools,” notes Weinberg, “we’re fulfilling our mission, which is to help people who are on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”

Perhaps most impressive of all, Catholic schools spend considerably less money per pupil than public schools to achieve these results. According to the NCEA, in 2009–10 the mean per-pupil cost at a Catholic elementary school is $5,436; at a Catholic secondary school, $10,228. The National Center for Education Statistics has found that the mean per-pupil cost at a public school is $9,683. (The study does not differentiate the cost per pupil between elementary and secondary schools.) Since elementary schools enroll more students than secondary schools, and since secondary schools are usually more expensive than elementary schools, it stands to reason that Catholic schools, on average, get better outcomes for fewer dollars.

Another report from the NCEA puts the aggregate effect in stark relief. As the nation’s largest single provider of private education, Catholic schools save the American taxpayer $20.5 billion each and every year.

A Moment of Crisis
On March 4, the archbishop of Baltimore announced plans to shutter 13 of the archdiocese’s 64 schools at the end of the 2009–10 school year. The decision will displace more than 2,100 students—nearly 10 percent of the 22,700 students in the archdiocesan school system. “If we keep this up,” Archbishop Edwin O’Brien told theBaltimore Sun, “in a dozen years we won’t have a school system.”

Baltimore is the most recent episode in a long-running story. Statistics compiled by the NCEA reveal that enrollment in Catholic primary and secondary schools peaked around 1965, when almost 5.5 million students attended roughly 13,000 Catholic schools across the country. By the early 1970s, the numbers of both schools and students began to drop. Those declines have never been reversed. By 1990, there were approximately 2.5 million students in 8,719 schools.

The situation today is, if anything, even bleaker. For the 2009–10 school year, about 2.1 million students are enrolled in 7,094 Catholic schools (of which 5,889 are elementary and 1,205 are secondary schools). This year, 24 new Catholic schools are slated to open. But 174 others will be consolidated or closed. Elementary schools have been the hardest hit.

The difficulties facing Catholic schools are enormous. But the scale of the challenge is inspiring some non-Catholic donors to step forward.

“We’re not a Catholic foundation,” says Tom Marino, executive director of the Memphis-based Poplar Foundation. “Nobody associated with the foundation is Catholic. That’s not the reason we’re associated with the Memphis Jubilee Catholic Schools.”

Between 1999 and 2004, the Diocese of Memphis re-opened eight previously closed Catholic schools. The re-opened schools are known as “Jubilee Schools,” named in honor of the Year of Jubilee proclaimed by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Today, the schools educate more than 1,400 students. Of the total student population, 86 percent are African American; 81 percent are non-Catholic. Accustomed to a litany of school closures, Catholic school supporters sometimes refer to the effort as the “Memphis miracle.”

The effort required major philanthropic support—over $60 million to date, for construction, renovation, and endowment funding—which came from both Catholic and non-Catholic donors. “Poplar has been involved with Jubilee from early on,” explains Marino. “Our core mission is education for low-income kids in Memphis, Tennessee. So it made perfect sense for us to partner with the Jubilee Schools. That’s exactly who they’re serving.”

“When I became a bishop in 1993, I was shocked that our schools were closing,” Bishop J. Terry Steib recently explained in a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute. “I thought, ‘that’s not the Church’s way.’” Steib saw Catholic schools—particularly in the inner cities—as a vehicle for evangelization. (Steib, himself African-American, had always hoped to be assigned to missionary work in Africa.) “It is the mission of the Church to be where others aren’t.”

Steib tapped a hard-charging Philadelphia-born grandmother to lead the effort. Mary McDonald moved to Memphis in 1976 and spent over 20 years working in diocesan schools, picking up a doctorate along the way. Her new assignment plunged her into some of America’s poorest zip codes. She never flinched.

“Everything for us boils down to leadership,” says Marino. “That’s what first drew us to the Jubilee Schools. When you’ve got competent, committed, and compassionate leaders like Bishop Steib and Dr. McDonald, you can overcome enormous obstacles. They give their hearts, minds, and entire lives to accomplishing the mission: helping every child achieve their God-given potential. And they do so not just by promoting academic excellence, but also by cultivating personal responsibility, social skills, and leadership, all balanced by faith and a sense of service to others.”

The Poplar Foundation views its support for the Jubilee Schools as one component of a ranging reform strategy. “There is no one answer to the dilemma faced by Memphis,” says Marino. “There are multiple answers to this problem. If we find the right people to work with, we say yes to Catholic schools, yes to Christian schools, yes to charter schools, and yes to traditional public schools. The common denominator is great leadership.”

A Fresh Set of Eyes
In one important regard, non-Catholics enjoy a comparative advantage over their Catholic counterparts when it comes to supporting inner-city Catholic schools. Non-Catholics were not raised within the parochial school system. They are not habituated to its practices, nor do they feel deferential to its traditions. They can see Catholic schools with a fresh set of eyes—spotting problems and identifying solutions.

Stephen Schwarzman
Stephen Schwarzman has pale blue eyes. When he smiles, they light up, making him look younger than his 63 years. But when those eyes fix on something, they can quickly turn cool and analytical, capable of instantly sizing up possibilities.

From a young age, Schwarzman had a gift for seeing opportunities. He grew up in a solidly middle-class Jewish family in the Philadelphia suburbs. His father owned a retail goods store that specialized in linens, bedding, and other dry goods. When Schwarzman was 15 years old, he began thinking of strategies for taking the store to scale. He approached his father with a plan to open more stores and expand into a national chain—“like Sears.” (His father declined.)

Years later, Schwarzman would draw on those talents when he joined Peter Peterson in forming the Blackstone Group. They launched the partnership in 1985, with a balance sheet of $400,000. In early 1987, Blackstone created its first private equity fund, and soon became a global leader in alternative investment management. Twenty years later, Schwarzman led Blackstone to a $7.7 billion initial public offering.

In addition to his continued service as chairman and CEO of Blackstone, Schwarzman serves in a wide array of civic and nonprofit roles. He is chairman of the board at the Kennedy Center, a trustee of the Frick Collection, and a board member of the Asia Society, the New York Public Library, and the Inner-City Scholarship Fund.

“I have always been a big supporter of education in general,” says Schwarzman. “I’m especially impressed with the commitment the Archdiocese of New York has made to educate more than 40,000 inner-city students with a solid values-based academic program. They have achieved fantastic results—98 percent of the seniors graduate, and 97 percent of these graduates plan to pursue post-secondary education—especially for a student population that’s 93 percent minority, where 50 percent live near or below the poverty line.”

Schwarzman praises the Inner-City Scholarship Fund for its “focus on accountability, both for students and teachers, which provides a foundation for academic and personal success.” He expresses his admiration with contributions of both money and time. “I make annual donations to support the organization,” continues Schwarzman, “as well as sponsor 30 children. (Over the next few years, this number will grow to over 100 children.) I take my role as a sponsor very seriously and keep in touch with my students on a regular basis.”

But perhaps Schwarzman’s biggest contribution is the donation of his innate problem-solving skills. While touring Sacred Heart School in the Bronx, it occurred to him that private scholarship funds needed to do a better job assuring low-income parents that tuition assistance would flow without interruption. The best way to attract committed parents is to present these scholarships not as tenuous annual grants, but rather as continuous 12-year pathways.

For middle-class, suburban Catholic families, although parochial school tuition can be a burden, it is rarely a deal-breaker. Not so, Schwarzman realized, for inner-city parents. “Many children who receive tuition for grade school lose sponsorship for high school. They are then forced to go back into the public school system—an interruption that can be very disruptive.”

Schwarzman’s eyes light up. “It would be wonderful if we could find a way to keep these kids in the Catholic school system throughout their educational career.” It’s a problem he and others are now looking to solve.