Obama, Vartan and Brest

Barack Obama once ran the Chicago arm of the Annenberg Challenge, a $500m effort to improve schools in America funded by media tycoon Walter Annenberg. It was there that he came into contact with Bill Ayers, the Weatherman terrorist, a relationship that caused controversy during the recent election campaign.

Less controversially, coming into contact with philanthropy bodes well for Obama as he tries to deliver smarter government, which is more likely to happen if he finds ways to work with philanthrocapitalists.

How Obama performed in his Annenberg role came up in a discussion chaired by Matthew on Sunday at the 92nd Street Y, between Vartan Gregorian and Paul Brest. According to Gregorian, now president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, who used to oversee the Annenberg Challenge, Obama managed to double the amount of money paid to Chicago, and also helped pave the way for Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, to take control of the city’s schools, a move that is widely regarded as a catalyst to significant reforms, some of them implemented by Obama’s incoming Education Secretary, Arne Duncan.

As we report in the book, overall the Annenberg Challenge is widely regarded as a disappointment. In his book, “The Foundation”, Joel Fleishman described the initiative as one of the biggest philanthropic failures he has seen. Whilst not that dismissive, Gregorian conceded that the challenge lacked focus, being willing to fund almost anyone who was labelled a ‘reformer’, however far left or right they were.

Generally, Gregorian, who now funds education reform through the Carnegie Corporation, including in partnership with the Gates Foundation, was gloomy about the impact philanthropy has had on education, despite a lot of money being given and lots of experimentation, as Matthew reports in this column on (In the book, we are somewhat more upbeat, especially on the impact of giving on education in New York City, though clearly much more progress is needed.)

Gregorian and Brest, president of the Hewlett Foundation, also had a lively discussion about the outlook for philanthropy in the recession, noting that their foundations are now much poorer than a year ago, yet are largely sticking to their giving plans for this year, at least. A crumb of comfort in these tough times.