Many wealthy philanthropists with a personal interest in a particular health concern or other issue have given disproportionate sums of money for the cause—tens or even hundreds of millions. But few givers have become synonymous with a single cause in philanthropic circles the way that investment industry titan and billionaire Charles Schwab has with dyslexia.

Schwab, founder of the well-known brokerage and bank corporation that carries his name, himself has dyslexia, the learning disorder that makes reading difficult. For years, Schwab has been the top private source of research and education dollars for the psychology, psychiatry and other university departments and specialties that can contribute to the study of such disorders.

Now after many years of such giving, Schwab has moved from his position as the leading private funder of research into dyslexia and related conditions—to become an even more leading funder. He recently committed $20 million to establish a multidisciplinary center to study the biology of neurodevelopmental disorders and to improve screening and to develop interventions for dyslexia and other learning issues. (Although Schwab does have a charitable foundation, the new gift was a personal one and did not come through the foundation.)

An Academic Bridge Across the Bay

The new initiative partners two University of California campuses on either side of San Francisco Bay—UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley—drawing on strengths at each institution to dig into the complex problems of dyslexia and similar conditions. Called the UCSF-UC Berkeley Schwab Dyslexia and Cognitive Diversity Center, it will engage a number of disciplines, including psychology, psychology, education, neuroscience, and others.

It has no doubt been said that dyslexia hasn’t seemed to hinder Schwab’s professional achievement. In fact, he has claimed it was an asset, forcing him to develop an ability to quickly grasp big pictures that others don’t always see. But dyslexia, one of the most common language-based learning disabilities, can be an immense burden for students and working adults who struggle to read and keep up at school or work.

"I don’t think there’s anyone who has made a more sustained contribution to reading disorders than Chuck Schwab," said Matthew State, MD, PhD, a UCSF child psychiatrist and human geneticist who worked closely with Schwab to develop the plan for the new center. The new gift built on a strong relationship—Schwab long supported the previously established UCSF Dyslexia Center—and a meeting of the minds when it came to developing new ways to be collaborative and multidisciplinary in dyslexia research.

Research leaders at both universities had long been searching for a way to link the schools to create an instrument to drive both research and clinical care for people with these learning and reading issues.

Other philanthropic funders dot the dyslexia landscape, such as the John & Jacolyn Bucksbaum Family Foundation. Jacolyn Buckbaum co-founded the Focus Foundation, which supports education and science in dyslexia and related issues. Another funder, the Tremaine Foundation, supports educational programs and research. Also at UCSF, venture capitalist Steve Carnavale has been supporting dyslexia-related causes. But it is an area that may be drawing more philanthropic support, particularly as scientific developments in the study of the brain make meaningful advances and effective interventions more likely.

A Unique Moment for Research into the Mind

“The academic work on ADHD and dyslexia are decades old, but in general the brain is a very complicated place,” said State. In the last decade or so—very recent in research terms—advances in neuroimaging, genetics and other areas have started to transform study of the brain and psychiatric illnesses, as well as reading and learning issues. “These tools enable us to study the brain and these issues in a broader and more scalable way, and the UCSF-Berkeley center represents these opportunities in an explicit way.”

Schwab’s support for the innovative cross-campus dyslexia center is an apt example of philanthropy’s role in health-related research when public funding is constrained. The NIH does of course fund research into neurological issues, and even has developed ways to funds novel avenues of research, but not to the degree that many in the field feel is commensurate with the need.

"The NIH is great, with multiple constituencies involved in neurological issues, but when you look at the prevalence in the population of neurological issues, including mood disorders and depression, you see they are the greatest areas of disability and lost productivity," said State. "Across the board, it’s philanthropy that allows us to do creative things in these fields.”


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