the University of Notre dame, shutterstock/ RebeccaDLev

the University of Notre dame, shutterstock/ RebeccaDLev

Funders spend tens of billions of dollars a year to combat poverty, both in the U.S. and globally. But is it actually working? That’s the provocative question underlying a $111 million endowment gift from the Boca Raton, Florida-based Pulte Family Charitable Foundation to the University of Notre Dame.

The gift, which was announced in November, will expand a worldwide network of professionals dedicated to helping people escape poverty, make anti-poverty charitable organizations more effective, cultivate next-generation leaders, create “smarter and longer-lasting solutions to poverty,” and enhance the university’s network of poverty action stakeholders.

Funding will flow to six distinct university initiatives, including the Pulte Institute for Global Development, which studies global poverty and inequity, and the William J. Pulte Endowment for Excellence in Social Innovation, which supports research to identify scalable programs to help people move out of poverty.

These initiatives are important but somewhat ancillary components of this gift, which caught my attention for three reasons. First, it isn’t very often we see an under-the-radar funder make a donation of this magnitude—both in terms of its size and its aims. Second, for all the billions flowing into the higher ed space, few funders attempt to tackle the highly complex issue of poverty—especially at the global level. And third, the gift is particularly timely. As we’ve reported, a number of new deep-pocketed funders have lately come into the domestic anti-poverty space, with some—like the Gates Foundation, the Ballmer Group, and Bloomberg Philanthropies—animated by a belief that better data can shed new light on which strategies work best to boost economic mobility. The Pulte gift will help Notre Dame become a player in an expanding ecosystem of anti-poverty researchers in higher education, bringing a global lens to this work.

Pulte is not a name that will ring a bell for most readers. So let’s begin by looking at a foundation that, as of two years ago, posted less than $150,000 in total revenue.

“A Dynamic and Relevant Entity”

William Pulte was the founder of the home-building firm PulteGroup, Inc. Raised in Detroit, he started Pulte Homes in 1950 and began building custom and mass-production houses throughout the region in the 1950s. The company went public in 1969, and by the mid-1990s it became the largest homebuilder in the U.S. Pulte retired from the parent company, PulteGroup, and its board of directors in 2010. PulteGroup is currently the third-largest homebuilder in the country with 4,810 employees and $8.3 billion in annual home sales.

William and his wife Karen were founding board members and supporters of International Samaritan, an Ann Arbor-based international nonprofit dedicated to raising the standard of living in garbage dump communities, since 1994. The couple supported dozens of scholarships for children living in communities across Central America and El Salvador.

The Pulte Family Charitable Foundation was founded in 1990. “Guided by the belief in the inherent dignity of all people,” the foundation’s mission statement reads, the foundation “works to meet the basic human needs of the most marginalized members of the human family, including socio-economically disadvantaged youth; the aged; persons with physical, emotional and mental disabilities; and those with the fewest material resources. In addition to the above, the foundation seeks to serve religious communities and correlative organizations of Judeo-Christian beliefs.” The foundation is wholly separate of Pulte Homes and PulteGroup, Inc.

Karen sits on the Pulte Family Charitable Foundation board and serves as director of its scholarship program. William’s daughter, Nancy, is the chairman of the board of directors and president of the foundation. Nancy laid out the foundation’s approach accordingly: “What we do and the decisions we make now will make all the difference in our being a dynamic and relevant entity—taking on current and future philanthropic challenges and addressing humanitarian issues—versus an old-school foundation that functions under the most conservative principles and practices.”

Quickly Carving Out a Niche

Making a $111 million higher ed gift to combat poverty is certainly an example of “relevant” philanthropy right now, amid a growing national and global debate over economic inclusion. It’s also the kind of gift few would have expected from a once-sleepy foundation, which reported just $141,000 in annual giving just a few years ago, in 2015. Previous grantees include the Covenant House International, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, and Youth Mentoring Worldwide.

After William passed away in March 2018, the Pulte family transferred assets from his estate to the foundation, according to Crain’s Detroit Business. The foundation’s assets stood close to $9 million in 2018. In October of 2019, it gave the Big Rapids, Michigan-based Ferris State University $1 million to fund scholarships and an incubator as part of the university’s construction program. Explaining the genesis of the gift, Karen Pulte said, “I actually went online and Googled construction and trade schools in Michigan. After visiting Ferris State and touring the facility and seeing all they had to offer, it felt like an immediate fit. Bill [Pulte] always felt that the trades were one of the most important aspects to the building business, but unfortunately it was not a ‘glamour’ job. That being said, less and less students were going into that field.”

I found this gift intriguing for two reasons. First, we’ve lately seen a few new funders looking to support underfunded and “unglamorous” trade and vocational schools, most notably Eric Smidt, the founder of Harbor Freight Tools. That the Pulte Foundation is also interested in this space is further evidence of an emerging trend.

And second, loyal readers of IP’s higher ed vertical also know that most funders have a strong preexisting relationship to recipient institutions. We rarely hear about a funder Googling—much let admitting to Googling—a potential recipient. Clearly, Karen Pulte is keen to step up giving in ways that honor Bill Pulte’s legacy.

Seeking a “Global Reach”

The back story behind the Pulte Foundation’s gift to Notre Dame is a bit more straight-forward. Nancy is a member of Notre Dame’s advisory council for the Keough School of Global Affairs and one of her children is an alumnus. Moreover, Nancy said that the partnership would help her foundation scale its efforts globally. “In partnering with the University of Notre Dame, we will accomplish things we could never achieve on our own. In addition to sharing our core beliefs rooted in our Catholic faith, the University has a global reach with access to some of the world’s brightest minds, expertise, resources and all-around know-how for playing on different fields and winning when it comes to improving life systems for humanity.”

The Pulte Foundation’s sudden ramp-up underscores how a higher ed funder’s ambitions can change practically overnight. Two other recent examples come to mind.

The Overland Park, Kansas-based Sunderland Foundation is the giving arm of the Ash Grove Cement Company. The foundation awarded roughly $26.9 million in grants across its 2017 lifecycle. In September of 2018, it entered into a merger agreement with the Dublin, Ireland-based CRH plc, under which it would acquire Ash Grove in a transaction valuing the company at $3.5 billion. The philanthropic floodgates quickly opened. In the year since the announcement of its sale, the foundation awarded a combined $141 million to the Children’s Mercy Research Institute in Kansas City and the University of Kansas Health System.

The second example involves, ironically enough, the University of Notre Dame trustee Kenneth Ricci, whose previous giving hovered around the relatively modest $5 million range. Seeking to resolve some complicated estate planning issues involving his privately held businesses, Ricci announced a $100 commitment in which the school would become a general partner upon his passing.

A Rare Foray into Anti-Poverty Work

It’s not often that we see big donations to higher ed institutions that are focused on poverty, much less global poverty. Alumni givers tend to gravitate toward other priorities, like medical research and scholarships, while anti-poverty funders tend to support advocacy or direct service organizations. But universities have an important role to play in advancing research on poverty both at home and abroad, and we’ve lately reported on millions in new funding going to university scholars working in this area—most notably Raj Chetty, who founded Opportunity Insights at Harvard, and Matthew Desmond, who created the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

The Pulte gift tracks with these other initiatives, with its goal of bringing more rigor to anti-poverty research globally by tapping Notre Dame’s think tank-esque network of academics and researchers. The school’s press release about the gift stated: “Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year to serve the poor in the United States and around the world. For this money to make a difference, it must be directed toward programs that deliver real, reliable outcomes for people in need.”

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