The Conways support scholarships at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and numerous other schools in the region. Photo: Richard Thornton/shutterstock
The Conways support scholarships at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and numerous other schools in the region. Photo: Richard Thornton/shutterstock

It may seem prescient now, but when Bill and Joanne Conway began supporting nursing a decade ago, there was no way of knowing they’d be bolstering the front lines of a global pandemic.

Back in 2011, the U.S. was just stepping back from the brink of a global financial crisis. Hoping to ease a tough situation, the couple decided to give away “at least $1 billion.” The question was how. In an interview with the Washington Post, Bill Conway asked readers for ideas.

In hindsight, he doesn’t necessarily recommend that approach. The result was a staggering 3,000 responses that took a team of folks to wade through. In the end, the Conways adopted the philosophy of creating jobs, thinking a good job meant food on the table, a roof overhead and financial stability.

Attuned to an acute nursing shortage, they then winnowed their focus down to that profession. “I saw in nursing an area where people who got a nursing degree could always get a job and take care of the rest over time,” Conway said. He also credits his wife for the idea. “She just thought, nurses. People who had nursing degrees could get jobs. It’s that simple.”

Since then, their Bedford Falls Foundation has invested more than $200 million in nursing. That translates to 4,000 scholarships to date, with plans “to do at least 10,000”—a goal Conway’s confident they can reach.

Recently, the University of Maryland School of Nursing (UMSON) announced a $13.8 million gift from the Conways, the largest in the school’s history. It builds on three prior commitments they’ve made since 2015, for a total of $30 million. All in, the support is expected to fund more than 830 scholarships by the fall of 2027.

Many of the foundation’s investments are the largest on record at the nursing schools they support, making the Conways clear leaders in the space. And their work complements a broader recognition of the essential nature of nursing.

Co-founding a company and a foundation 

Bill Conway feels strongly about giving others a leg up. “Generally, I have a strong interest in trying to help people who are maybe not as lucky as I am,” Conway told the Post, saying he’d been “well-rewarded in this life.”

Conway is one of three co-founders of private equity firm the Carlyle Group, which manages assets of $246 billion and employs 1,800 people on six continents. The 2020 Forbes 400 list places him at 278.

The Bedford Falls Foundation, a family foundation located in Washington, D.C., listed assets of $26 million in 2019, and $19 million in revenue. So far, the nursing schools it funds are all in the general vicinity: Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. That’s driven by Conway’s hands-on approach as a donor. He pops up at graduations, likes to visit the places he funds, and often takes on institutional leadership roles.

He even tried his hand at the NCLEX-RN exam, which determines licensing for nursing school graduates. Conway found the test both long and challenging, but has come to appreciate the level playing field it represents. “I learned how wonderfully non-discriminatory [the tests] are,” he said. The test is blind to age, race, gender and religion. “Pass NCLEX,” he said, “and you’re a nurse.”

Each one’s a little different

The foundation’s primary interest is in funding need-based scholarships, but “each one’s a little different.”  “Once my wife and I decide on which school, we meet with the school, deans and sometimes students,” Conway said. “They tell me what they need, and I listen.”

For instance, in May of 2020, the George Washington University School of Nursing received $2.5 million to support financial assistance for veterans pursuing a bachelor of science in nursing—another gift the school characterized as the largest in its history.

The focus at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing (JHSON) is on advanced degrees. Established in 2013, Conway scholarships inspire improved patient care through leadership, research and community impact.

The scholarships established in 2013 at Trinity Washington University’s School of Nursing and Health Professions (NHP) are needs-based, targeting high-achieving, low-income candidates from Washington, D.C., Prince George’s County or Montgomery County. In concert with other financial aid resources, the $10,000-a-year awards can help get students to the financial finish line.

The Conways’ support at the University of Virginia expands undergraduate opportunities. The UVA School of Nursing received a $20 million “game-changing” gift in early 2020 to expand the enrollment of more than 1,000 undergraduates over the next decade. Funds focus primarily on two programs: one for students transferring into the B.S. in nursing program, and another for RN-to-B.S.N. students, to help practicing registered nurses advance from two-year to four-year degrees.

UVA also called the Conways’ contribution the largest single gift in the nursing school’s history. The recent gift brings their total support for the institution to $35 million. Three earlier gifts totaling $15 million helped expand a clinical nurse leader program that U.S. News & World Report ranks second in the nation.

A $3 million gift in March leveraged a $2.5 million gift made last year to the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, and now provides more than 150 nursing scholarships a year—doubling the school’s needs-based scholarships for undergrads. Approximately 72% of the school’s 455 undergraduates qualify for needs-based scholarships. More than 30% of them will receive Conway scholarships.

The Conway School of Nursing at the Catholic University of America in D.C. was renamed for the Conways in 2019, following a $20 million donation that brought the foundation’s total support to $40 million. Again, the gift was the largest in the history of the university from a single donor, this time doubling the school’s capacity to “create more great nurses.”

Exploring opportunities further afield

Brick-and-mortar investments and ancillary support aren’t the foundation’s priority, but they have been employed at grantee schools. For example, doubling the capacity of the Conway School of Nursing involved an investment in a new nursing and sciences building, as well as a faculty mentor and licensure support. And $1 million of the Conways’ recent support for University of Maryland, Baltimore funded renovations to the nursing building at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville.

Though Conway prefers to fund in “places he can easily visit” along the Mid-Atlantic, the Bedford Falls Foundation is exploring opportunities further afield as local capacity is reached.

If Bedford Falls rings a bell, Conway confirmed that the foundation’s name is grounded in the ideas of “It’s A Wonderful Life”—that true wealth is rooted in family, neighbors, friends and generosity.

At the end of the film, Harry Bailey raises his glass to his brother, calling him the richest man in town. “That’s me,” Conway said. “I’m the luckiest man.”