The George Kaiser Family Foundation has grown to a $3.8 billion trust due to ongoing contributions from its founder, George Kaiser. Its signature effort is to break the cycle of poverty through early childhood education. Other prominent projects include Gathering Place, Woody Guthrie Center, Guthrie Green, Tulsa Remote and leadership of the statewide effort to reduce mass incarceration.
After 15 years in business, the foundation has been going through an evaluation process that has included public meetings, surveys of grantees and other methods of reconsidering how it does what it does.
Executive Director Ken Levit agreed to a question-and-answer conversation, conducted by email, concerning what he’s learned through that process so far.
Question: You’ve recently been on a bit of a listening tour. Tell me about it. What were you hoping to learn?
Levit: Over the last year, I’ve tried to be more deliberate about sharing the GKFF mission and hearing the perspectives of other Tulsans who have thoughts and reactions about our goals and strategies. Brandon Oldham and I have hosted 15 community coffees, and we plan to continue the effort in 2020. I’ve really enjoyed the experience, especially the wide range of people who come to the conversations. I’ve certainly learned a lot and it’s making a difference in our work.
Question: What prompted the idea?
Levit: I’m always worried about being too much in a bubble. One of the most unique aspects of GKFF is the intensity of our focus. We are deeply focused on a core mission — equal opportunity for all children. But, we also have an almost exclusive focus on a place — Tulsa — and always will. We live in the community where we work so we have lived experience right here. But physical proximity alone does not create understanding or trust. It’s important to get close, listen and build relationships to work together with people.
The irony of life these days is that as inter-connected as we seem to be, all of us live increasingly siloed lives. We drive the same route every day to work, we talk to our same friends. Heck, we even increasingly read or watch some version of our own news every day.
So I am trying to challenge myself and my colleagues to break out of those silos as much as we can. And, the community coffees that we have been scheduling each month are one modest part of a series of efforts happening across the foundation. It’s a chance to get feedback on how we are perceived, what we don’t know but should and to share more information with those who are interested and passionate about Tulsa’s future.
Question: Were there any surprises for you in that process? How do you think GKFF will behave differently as a result of that process?
Levit: I sense a strong desire by people to know more about what we do. And that desire for information comes from a lot of places. People are curious about our work. They have ideas and insights. It might come from a person at an organization who wants to share what they are seeing and working on. It may come from a person who is retired or who just moved to town who would like to help.
And, on occasion, there are people who are wary about GKFF, who wonder about our goals, or more commonly, about how they think we are pursuing our plans. Frankly, that’s my favorite part of these conversations. I love it when people come to the meetings with concerns or questions. Look, I get it. A foundation can have real impact in a place. Yet its work feels mysterious. How does GKFF pick its core objectives or select projects? What is the reasoning behind Educare or Gathering Place? Why don’t we spend more to meet the core needs in the public schools or on public transportation? Those are fair questions, and I enjoy the chance to address them. We have answers, but we may not be right. We have to discuss — and it starts with getting together and having a dialogue.
Question: Any overarching sets of concerns that seem to come up?
Levit: The feeling of “two Tulsas” is pretty strong.
Yes, there is a sense that Tulsa is a on a positive trajectory. At the same time, so many others are struggling, feel left out or anxious. More than I expected. People want to brainstorm about more internships, entrepreneurship support and economic development needs. Even though the community seems to be getting stronger, people are concerned about the availability of good jobs and the prospect of the company growth needed to build on Tulsa’s recent improvements.
Also, I do experience a desire for a deeper discussion around issues of race, diversity and equity, in general. It’s essential to any conversation around equal opportunity in Tulsa. And it’s a defining issue of these times. I really value the candor of those conversations. We get ongoing encouragement to be more vocal about and to emphasize our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. These values are at the heart of our efforts to create high quality early childhood education, to reduce our shamefully high rate of incarceration and even in creating free and accessible public spaces.
In the new year, we want to be more clear in articulating that these values are central to these initiatives. It’s undeniable that decades, actually centuries, of implicit and explicit bias based on race contribute to the cycle of poverty. We have to own that in addressing present day conditions, policies and remedies.
I have more learning and work to do in this area, personally. The same goes for our foundation as a whole.
Question: What other tools do you use to evaluate how GKFF is perceived and how it can be more effective in its efforts?
Levit: When a foundation is in the business of giving funds to organizations, it is hard to get honest feedback. One interesting experience this year was that we made a significant effort to solicit feedback from all our grantees and invited 260 grant recipients from the previous calendar year to complete an anonymous survey.
People were pretty candid. And, ultimately, we heard specific suggestions that will help us improve. For example, several grantees had no hesitation telling us that we needed to communicate better and more regularly with them. Sure it can be uncomfortable getting candid feedback — but it is also indispensable to getting better. I’m sure I’ll receive more of it from your readers!
Question: How do you imagine all of this changing the way the foundation does its business moving forward?
Levit: It’s a process. I want to build more channels of conversation. I want to be on the lookout for smaller organizations, now unknown to us, that are doing outstanding work in our core mission of equal opportunity for all children in Tulsa. We will also probably expand our work in economic development, focusing not just on talent attraction but also more talent retention and development. And I think we will continue to select and work with partners to support and strengthen key neighborhoods, especially where the foundation has made investments in early education. I’m excited about 2020 and the decade ahead. I’m impatient for change but getting better at appreciating that this is a long-term effort.