Nota bene: Schwarzman's strings

For some years now, one of my top examples of how not to do philanthropy has been Paul Tudor Jones’s attempt to give $15 million to the University of Virginia, to build a yoga center it neither wanted nor needed. No matter what you think about the pros and cons of donating money to educational institutions, the broader principle remains, and is true for all nonprofits: They know their business better than you do. If they want money to do X, then either give them money to do X, or don’t. Don’t offer them money to do Y instead.

The people most in need of being taught this lesson would seem to be financiers – not just Tudor Jones but also Stephen Schwarzman, who recently went on something of a media tour to publicize the fact that he just gave $25 million to his Pennsylvania high school.

According to Schwarzman’s own telling, the school wanted to spend $100 million on renovations and updates, but had only lined up $75 million in financing, so he stepped in to fill the gap. But at the same time he Had Ideas about how his money should be spent, drawing up a list of technology-related expenditures without which his gift would not be forthcoming. The result: Abington High School will, soon, have not only a robotics lab but also a virtual-reality lab to boot.

Is there any good reason for a public high school to have a virtual-reality lab? I doubt it. Giving students access to bleeding-edge technology is not, generally, the best way of educating them, and the edtech world has pretty much moved on from its “give every student a gizmo” phase, whether that gizmo is a laptop, an iPad, or a fully-fledged computer lab. But of course Steve Schwarzman isn’t an edtech wonk, he just knows that Coding is the Future, and he probably suspects that talking up his high school’s virtual-reality lab will garner him all manner of plaudits in Davos next year.

Education is one of the most fraught and dangerous areas of the philanthropic universe, and it’s a field where much more thoughtful givers than Schwarzman – names like Gates and Zuckerberg spring to mind – have come unstuck. There are no easy solutions, not least because the amount spent on public schools is vastly greater than all private philanthropy combined, and it’s hard to find leverage points. On top of that, interventions which work in one place often prove devilishly difficult to replicate and scale.

I do like the idea of giving to public schools rather than private charter schools; Texan donor Charles Butt, for instance, has been justly lauded for his gifts to local public schools. What’s more, those gifts are targeted where they’re needed most – at human educators and administrators, rather than at swanky new pieces of architecture.

So while it’s great that a public high school is getting a $25 million donation, I can’t get particularly excited about this one. Ultimately, like most of Schwarzman’s gifts, it smells mostly of vanity, rather than selflessness.