Sather tower at UC Berkeley, one of 12 Bay Area schools receiving new funding from the koret foundation. Ben Chu/shutterstock
Sather tower at UC Berkeley, one of 12 Bay Area schools receiving new funding from the koret foundation. Ben Chu/shutterstock

The San Francisco-based Koret Foundation, which splits its giving between Jewish causes and Bay Area organizations, has solidified its position as one of the region’s most important funders since emerging from legal troubles in 2016.

That year, the foundation made a $50 million commitment to the region’s higher ed institutions. In 2017, it announced a new $10 million arts and culture commitment. Now comes word of a new wave of $50 million in grants to Bay Area colleges and universities grappling with the pandemic.

According to the foundation, the grants will “directly benefit students, faculty and staff across 12 schools, including nearly 2,000 first-generation Koret Scholars program participants, as well as thousands of recipients of scholarships, research grants, mentorship programs, career preparation and other services.”

The commitment and its key focus areas, which include increased student support, expanded access, and boosting affordability, double as a roadmap for institutions charting a post-COVID-19 landscape, where leaders expect diminished revenues and fundraising shortfalls that will rival or exceed those seen during the Great Depression.

“Investing in the next generation of talent, innovation and leadership is critical in order to ensure that all students, including the disadvantaged, have the opportunity to lead productive and successful lives,” said Michael Boskin, president of the Koret Foundation. “Universities were already facing challenges, which are now deepened and accelerated by the coronavirus and recession. We believe now is a critical time to provide long-term support for these institutions.”

Mapping Grants to Strategic Priorities

The Koret Foundation was organized in 1978 by Joseph Koret, a Russian-born American businessman who founded the textile company Koret of California, his wife Stephanie, and family friend and philanthropist Tad Taube. In addition to higher ed, arts and culture, and Jewish causes and Israel, the foundation’s other focus areas include K-12 education and support for disabled veterans. The foundation has given away over $600 million since its formation.

The foundation’s previous legal troubles involved a years-long battle between Susan Koret, Joseph Koret’s second wife, and longtime foundation president Taube. The disputes involved complaints that Taube (who still runs his own foundation) was improperly sending funds to causes in his native Poland and conservative political causes, along with sexual harassment allegations. The legal disputes wrapped up in 2016 with both parties stepping down from the Koret Foundation board.

Roughly three months before the parties reached a settlement, the foundation established a $50 million, multi-year initiative supporting 12 Bay Area higher education institutions. The initiative’s priorities included upgrading campus facilities and technology to serve institutional and community needs, strengthening ties between Bay Area and Israeli scholars, and enhancing student support and resources to increase student success and graduation rates, especially for the underserved.

Recipient institutions included the University of San Francisco, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and the City College of San Francisco, a public community college serving 70,000 students. Koret’s support for the latter institution was particularly refreshing since community colleges typically don’t receive substantial philanthropic support, despite being affordable engines of economic mobility. Fortunately, funders have come around to Koret’s thinking in the past four years.

An Overarching Focus on Student Support

As with the foundation’s first higher ed commitment, Boskin sat down with university chancellors and presidents to get a sense of their top concerns and identify areas where funding could have the greatest impact.

Boskin and his team listed high-impact priorities, flagged areas of overlap, ran them by the board, and looped back with university leadership before formalizing the grants. The nature of the funding differs by the university; some of it is supplemental, some is emergency-related.

Twelve institutions received grants ranging from $350,000 to $12 million. Funding will be distributed over five years. Here are three examples illustrating how institutions plan to use the funding:

  • UC Berkeley, which recently launched a $6 billion fundraising campaign, received $12 million for recruitment and retention of scholars and faculty, supporting first-generation college students, and building a more inclusive academic culture.
  • The City College of San Francisco netted $2 million to support new course models and technology to include expanded online, hybrid-online and year-round class offerings, and improve transfer and graduation rates.
  • CSU East Bay received $350,000 to increase transfer rates from local community colleges through statewide partnerships between two- and four-year universities.

While no two institutions were identical, Boskin recognized some overarching areas of need, such as student success, retention and graduation, and job training. Most notably, Boskin told me that each institution has growing percentages of first-generation students, a demographic reality that raises a host of unique issues. For example, many of these students come from lower-income households and have a higher risk of dropping out if a family member experiences an unforeseen economic hardship.

The foundation’s support for first-generation students aligns with the priorities of other higher ed funders. In late 2019, a Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and TIAA Institute study stated that foundations’ support for “low-income students and students of color to begin and complete a postsecondary degree” was “the dominant trend in private philanthropy” for higher ed.

Responding to COVID-19

The Koret Foundation formulated its higher ed commitment before COVID-19 turned the sector upside-down. In March, just as the stock market was cratering, Boskin has reached back out to university leadership to determine if their needs had changed and reaffirmed the foundation’s support and flexibility. For example, if a university received funding for an exchange program that had to be postponed, leaders could hold on to the funding for next year. Other schools repurposed grants for COVID-19-related response.

Universities’ biggest short-term challenge will be operating in a “mixed-mode” model in which students attend classes in person and virtually due to social distancing requirements, Boskin said. Here, Koret’s support for expanded online and hybrid class offerings looks especially prescient.

Boskin told me that leaders’ biggest concerns centered around maintaining support to navigate a fraught economic landscape in 2021 and 2022. These concerns aren’t unique to higher ed institutions. Many nonprofits, facing shrinking donations and revenues, fear that funders will turn their attention elsewhere once the current crisis subsides. It’s Boskin’s job to assure Koret’s grantees that the funder will be with them for the long haul.

Looking ahead, Boskin told me Koret plans to ramp up its work around food insecurity—a challenge that was becoming increasingly urgent in the affluent Bay Area before COVID-19 hit. Since 1981, the Koret Food Program has provided more than $11 million in grants to 24 Bay Area nonprofit organizations. In 2015, the foundation awarded multi-year support for the first time, allowing grantees the flexibility needed in economically stressed times. In the fall of 2019, it awarded $1.94 million over two years in new grants.

In related analysis, check out my colleague Liz Longley’s piece looking at how funders are responding to growing concerns around food insecurity.

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