Tulsa philanthropist George Kaiser owns a lobster — a felt and fur one.
It’s named Leo von Feltenfurr, and according to Kaiser, Leo is about 52 years old.
And, if an iPhone photo is any indication, he looks good. His coloring remains a vibrant red, and his googly eyes are still affixed to his furry face more than a half-century after Kaiser and his first wife bought him for $1 on their honeymoon.
Leo is the emblem of what Kaiser calls “the lobster principle,” a kind of moral barometer that “Leo” applied to political promises but which Kaiser and the George Kaiser Family Foundation use to evaluate the scope of the foundation’s efforts.
Kaiser explained in an email to the Tulsa World: “During every State of the Union address, Leo would ensconce himself on our bedpost and pose the impertinent question, in a falsetto voice, ‘Yeah, but what’s in it for lobsters?’
“GKFF will be committed always and foremost to those who were given an unequal start by the accident of birth — human, however, rather than crustacean. Consistent with that notion, the foundation tries to make sure that every investment it makes … ties back to the core principle of advancing the prospects for disadvantaged young children.”
That internal principle, and the decision-making of his foundation, grow more ingrained in the path Tulsa will take with each passing year. Kaiser has pledged his entire fortune to disrupting the cycle of poverty in Tulsa, giving more than $4 billion to the George Kaiser Family Foundation. In close to two decades, the foundation has spent about $1 billion. There are billions more yet to come.
And there’s a new strategy that will expand the scope of what the foundation does for families and young, disadvantaged children. The foundation’s programs have become intertwined with the city’s economic development and the region’s social safety net. Taxpayer dollars have marched with it each step of the way, secured by the foundation’s influence, its pocketbook and its commitment to giving those born at an economic disadvantage a chance to overcome the hurdles they face.
Each year since Kaiser hired him to be executive director of the foundation, Ken Levit has worked on a top-10 list — a set of goals the foundation wants to pursue that year.
At the moment, the top of the list is the BEST Strategy, otherwise known as the birth-to-8 or “Tulsa Strategy.”
More than a decade of those top-10 lists, experience and data have shaped that plan, which the foundation intends to roll out this fall.
The strategy, as Kaiser and others describe it, involves expanding the scope of its early childhood education initiatives so that they stretch from before birth to age 8, focusing on not just children but their families as a whole and helping them navigate social assistance resources to fit their needs.
“Some elements of this program now reach every newborn child in Tulsa,” Kaiser said, “and our goal is to impact especially the lives of the 40,000 young children in Tulsa living in poverty.”
Progress, the foundation realizes, will come slowly.
Levit describes the status of the foundation’s work as the early innings of a baseball game.
“It’s a span of ambitions and goals that could span at least 50, 75 years, a couple generations, maybe three generations,” Levit said. “It will take a generation to have an idea if this effort was successful.”
Kaiser sees the strategy as one of the lenses through which the impact of the foundation will be judged.
“This is an ambitious program, which will likely survive, in an enhanced form, throughout the active life of the George Kaiser Family Foundation and form a major part of our legacy,” Kaiser said.
Whether it’s A Gathering Place for Tulsa or the foundation’s numerous developments in the Brady Arts District, GKFF has changed the map of Tulsa.
Despite the money spent and renown received, Kaiser views those endeavors two-fold — as both civic enhancements and part of a comprehensive effort to give poor Tulsa children the same starting line as kids born a few ZIP codes or tax brackets away.
“The foundation will continue to work with so many others to improve the inclusiveness, vibrancy and economic progress of our city. But our mission remains focused primarily upon the moral issue of equality of opportunity — not necessarily of result,” he said.
The belief that America was founded on that premise — that every person was created equal — is the deep-seated philosophy behind his philanthropy.
Kaiser, the man whose brain associates compare to a computer because of his ability to do math while carrying a conversation, doesn’t believe that genetics made him special other than that he won the “ovarian lottery”: being born white, male and wealthy in the United States.
Science, whether on the merits of early-childhood education or key types of interactions with babies in the home, Kaiser says, proves him right. So the foundation has invested more than $100 million in early-childhood education efforts.
Part of that aid comes in the form of three Educare facilities, with a fourth one in the planning stages, and 10 Community Action Project Tulsa County schools across the city. The centers educate more than 2,500 children from birth to age 4.
Like Kaiser, Annie Koppel Van Hanken, who oversees Educare and the foundation’s other early-childhood education initiatives, believes in the science of childhood brain development.
Nothing at Educare is there by happenstance — from the classroom layouts to the toy ovens that stand only a window removed from the real kitchen, Van Hanken explained.
“What we learned from other sites — George was very involved in this — was that we want to create spaces that are very engaging from the perspective of young children,” she said. “Everything is a field trip when you’re 2.”
Leveraging the public dollar
The philanthropist knows the limits of even his resources.
Kaiser said he has found that government efforts to combat poverty are intractable, sedentary and lacking flexibility to create programs that treat the causes instead of the symptoms.
However, he sees his billions as the startup seed money and his foundation’s efforts as the laboratory that needs the government’s manufacturing plant.
“Government involvement is still ultimately necessary because private-sector resources are not adequate to scale any successful experiment,” he said in an April email to the World.
Former Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. said Kaiser wants his money to be a catalyst for an effort but expects the city, or others, “to have skin in the game.”
Public money has walked hand-in-hand with the foundation’s spending as the scope of its giving has grown. Whether it will always be there in enough quantity to help remains a question.
“The question is: ‘Is there going to be a public set of funding sources that will sustain that work, much less expand it?’” said Steven Dow, executive director of CAP Tulsa, “because the Tulsa Strategy is going to be working with a small subset of kids in the community.”
CAP Tulsa has received tens of millions of dollars from the George Kaiser Family Foundation — about a third of its funding, Dow said. However, CAP Tulsa and Educare predominantly rely on a mixture of state and federal funds.
Dow thinks, given the state’s fiscal situation and constant turmoil at the federal level, local funding may be the best bet for scaling the Tulsa Strategy.
“When you look at the prospect for federal dollars, it’s obviously very hard to tell. … I think the probability of new funding sources at the state level is extremely slim, and so the question becomes: ‘As a local community, are we going to figure out ways to develop local revenue sources?’ Given the potential of the investments GKFF has made in the community, it’s conceivable to me.”
Local influence and impact
As the foundation has invested in Tulsa, members of its staff have begun serving on the city’s boards and commissions. Phil Lakin, a member of the foundation’s board of directors and president of the Tulsa Community Foundation, is on the Tulsa City Council.
Suzanne Schreiber, a TCF and GKFF staff member, is president of the Tulsa school board. Aaron Miller and Stanton Doyle of GKFF sit on the Economic Development Commission and Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust, respectively. Jeff Stava is chair of the Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust.
Levit said the foundation doesn’t have a strategy to place people on boards but that the nature of the work likely attracts the type of person who would serve on boards. Kaiser also said it wasn’t a concerted effort on the part of the foundation.
The presence of someone on a board or commission, whether strategic or not, gives the foundation someone with its interests in mind when decisions come before them.
In late June, the Tulsa Development Authority voted to approve the extension of a tax increment financing district onto land owned by the foundation — the Peoria-Mohawk Industrial Park. The intent was to help finance the building of a grocery store in a part of the city that is a “food desert.” Steve Mitchell, CEO of the Kaiser-founded firm Argonaut Private Equity, was among the four yes votes.
Mitchell has, in the past, administered investments on behalf of the foundation. He also led the foundation’s investment in the solar company Solyndra, which went bankrupt, costing both U.S. taxpayers and the foundation millions of dollars.
When asked by the World why he didn’t recuse himself from voting, Mitchell said: “Because at the end of the day, GKFF is a separate entity … that George does not control, nor does he own. It’s GKFF that owns that property. In reality, we weren’t approving any expenditures for the property.”
Facilitating the development of a grocery store in north Tulsa is just one piece of what GKFF plans to do with Peoria-Mohawk and is another example of how the city’s economic development efforts have meshed with the foundation’s work.
The foundation, alongside the city of Tulsa, is attempting to lure an employer, or a few, to the neighboring 100-plus acres. The Oklahoma Department of Commerce and Tulsa Regional Chamber are handling requests for proposals for the site.
Chamber CEO Mike Neal describes the relationship between the chamber and the foundation as a crucial partnership.
He said hardly a meeting with a potential prospect goes by without someone asking about A Gathering Place for Tulsa.
The park being built alongside the Arkansas River will be part of the River Parks Authority. Peoria-Mohawk will receive Vision Tulsa funds for infrastructure and a bus stop along the new Bus Rapid Transit Route. The foundation’s investments, among other things, have given Kaiser and the foundation influence with city leaders — an influence that observers say the foundation wields with a deft touch.
“He doesn’t overplay his hand. At least I’ve never seen him do it,” Bartlett said. “He uses it in a positive way.”
However, unintended consequences of foundation investments are possible. GKFF has developed the Archer Building in the Brady Arts District, adding a slew of retailers to downtown Tulsa — where the foundation developed the Woody Guthrie Center and Guthrie Green.
The Archer Building, because the foundation used tax credits for its development, charges below-market rates for tenants. Those lower rates have caused some downtown developers to worry that the practice may keep area rates low, which they can’t afford.
Jeff Scott, a downtown property owner and real estate broker, said there may be some effect on rent rates in the short-term but that there’s a longer-term perspective to keep in mind.
“Activity breeds activity, … and it will help jump-start demand for other needed retail in those areas,” Scott said.
Other stakeholders who spoke with the World declined to comment. There’s a certain reluctance to talk about the foundation and Kaiser outside the realm of praise.
Bartlett, when asked why few criticize Kaiser publicly, said he hoped people would have the good sense not “to kick a gift horse in the mouth.”
Kaiser, to some, is the latest example of a philanthropist changing the city, joining the ranks of Waite Phillips, Thomas Gilcrease and others.
“It makes me think about things like Philbrook. And Thomas Gilcrease. About how these people contributed millions and millions of dollars to the betterment of their city. Now George Kaiser, what he’s done and continues to do,” Bartlett said.
“He’s done it in a much more expansive way. … What George has contributed, it affects all different types of people.”