Ringo Chiu/Shutterstock
Ringo Chiu/Shutterstock

Eli Broad, who died last week at the age of 87, was a larger-than-life philanthropist. He tapped a multibillion-dollar fortune to bankroll ambitious initiatives across three areas: education, the arts, and biomedical research. A through-line connecting much of his giving was a relentless quest to transform his adopted city of Los Angeles into a world-class metropolis.

Broad grew up in Michigan, the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His father, who was a socialist, ran a five-and-dime store in Detroit; his mother was a dressmaker. Broad went to Detroit public schools and then to Michigan State University, where he majored in accounting. After he graduated, he became the youngest certified public accountant in Michigan history. Driven to make more money, Broad got into house building at the dawn of suburbanization and eventually went on to create and sell two Fortune 500 companies. When he died, Forbes pegged his net worth at just under $7 billion—the fortune left over after giving away billions of dollars in partnership with his wife Edythe.

Broad was a hard-charging, hands-on donor who personified the promise and peril of today’s era of “big philanthropy.” Let’s start the positives—the traits that made Broad a philanthropist worthy of both admiration and emulation.

First, Broad thought big and gave big. He was keen “to create things that didn’t exist before or to make existing institutions better,” he once said. His grandest venture in this regard, starting in the 1970s, was to build up a set of cultural institutions that could anchor a revived downtown Los Angeles. Today, thanks in no small measure to Broad’s vision, money and hard work, L.A. boasts an outstanding philharmonic housed in a majestic building, a high school for the arts, and multiple world class art museums, including The Broad, which is home to the vast contemporary art collection that Eli and Edythe Broad assembled over decades.

The couple also funded the creation of a pathbreaking biomedical research center, the Broad Institute, that brought together top scientists from Harvard and MIT. They ultimately gave more than $700 million to the institute, investments that have leveraged billions more in contributions to an institution that now supports more than 2,500 scientists exploring how to use genomics to understand the biology and treatment of diseases.

Second, Broad did much more than write checks. He brought all his personal resources to the causes he championed: he tapped his formidable Rolodex to raise money from other wealthy donors and he drew on decades of business experience to help build new institutions from scratch. Broad didn’t confine his giving to philanthropic donations, either. He readily bankrolled political candidates and ballot initiatives to move his agenda.

Third, Broad didn’t shy away from tackling tough challenges or getting into a fight. He wrestled with the knotty problems of the K-12 education systems for decades, giving $600 million in this area and millions more in political donations—work that made him so unpopular that teachers unions protested him in public, including when he and Edythe presided over the opening of The Broad in downtown Los Angeles (where admission is free).

When I interviewed Broad in 2016 for my book, “The Givers,” he told me that his wife often wondered why he made himself so miserable by sticking with K-12 giving. The answer lies in his past. He had grown up as the child of immigrant parents of modest means with undiagnosed dyslexia. The strong public schools he attended in Detroit allowed him to begin his rise to success.

But while Broad’s heart was in the right place on education, his approach was problematic and underscored the perils of turbo-charged billionaire philanthropy.

Broad helped bankroll the rise of the charter school movement and an array of education reform groups that stressed teacher accountability, test-based metrics of student success, and other measures aimed at bringing market competition and more rigor to K-12 systems. Along with the Walton family and a small handful of other billionaire donors, Broad backed changes that created profound disruptions to public school systems in cities across the U.S.

The results of all this giving were mixed at best. The best charter schools provide a great education, but many such schools underperform, and the charter movement as a whole never catalyzed the kind of market competition and systemic change to K-12 that its backers hoped for.

Broad can’t be faulted for taking risks on solutions that didn’t pan out. Good philanthropists are supposed to do that. What was troubling about his K-12 crusade, and that of like-minded donors, was a high-handedness that created polarization and a powerful backlash. Many teachers, parents and community leaders resented the intrusion of unaccountable billionaire donors into a civic space that has long been one of the most democratic provinces of American life. The often simplistic ways that Broad and other business leaders diagnosed the problems of K-12 systems, frequently disregarding the deep socioeconomic drivers of student failure, only deepened the view of key stakeholders that these donors were only making things worse.

In time, the Broad Foundation largely backed away from its support of charter schools and worked to make amends with education leaders that it had angered and alienated in Los Angeles. Today, it continues to fund other education work that Broad was passionate about, especially improving the leadership of K-12 systems and schools.

Broad’s heavy-handed approach to philanthropy also created resentment and problems within the Los Angeles cultural world—an arena where he made enormous contributions but was often faulted for being imperious and difficult.

In his later years, Broad wrote a memoir titled “The Art of Being Unreasonable,” in which he freely acknowledged that he could be extremely difficult—while also pointing to the results that came from his bulldozer approach. Many of the results are impressive, to be sure. But one can only wonder how much more effective Broad might have been, especially on education, if he had listened more closely to the people closest to the problems he was trying to solve and taken a more inclusive path that respected stakeholders that had dedicated their lives to public schools.

For other philanthropists, especially those with the biggest bank accounts, one clear takeaway from Eli Broad’s philanthropy is, yes, think big and push hard to achieve grand ambitions—but also see that humility must be more than a just pose; it needs to deeply infuse how they approach their giving.

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