Local financier Bill Conway has finally decided how he wants to give away $1 billion to help the Washington region — and it’s not at all what he originally expected.
Conway is not building a new wing for an art museum or donating to the opera. After studying 2,500 suggestions from the public, he also gave up on his original idea of using the cash to create jobs for the poor.
Instead, Conway has concluded that he can do the most good, over the long haul, by helping low-income people get the education and training they need to land jobs that are already available.
The impact could be significant in a region where tens of thousands of jobs go begging because local residents are unprepared for them.
Conway disclosed Tuesday that he’s making a down payment on his $1 billion promise with an initial round of grants totaling $55 million. Most will go to scholarships and other tuition assistance to help nursing students at area universities and children at Catholic schools, and to fund a job training program in Anacostia.
“I want to give away the money. I don’t want to die with it. I want the money to be used well,” Conway, 63, said in an interview. He spoke in the Pennsylvania Avenue offices of Carlyle Group, the mega-successful international financing company of which he is co-chief executive and a co-founder.
Conway’s grants are unusually large for the kinds of organizations that he is targeting, and there’s more to come.
“This is huge. It’s unprecedented. I’ve got goose bumps,” said Chuck Bean, president of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington. “I’ve only seen big, seven-figure grants go to large cultural institutions, not to on-the-ground direct service organizations like these.”
Such investments “put people on the path to independence,” Bean said. “This is good not only for the direct recipients, but I think Mr. Conway’s first tranche of grants will make his home town better for all of us.”
If the initial grants yield good results, Conway said, he foresees donating hundreds of millions of dollars more for the same purposes.
“I’m going to see how this works out,” Conway said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if over the next five or 10 years, the amount that went into these similar kinds of buckets was five to 10 times more.”
More than half of the initial grants, $30 million, are going for training in nursing and health care. They will go to at least five universities and an academy in our region: Trinity, Marymount, Catholic, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and LAYC Career Academy. Others might benefit, as well.
Why nursing? Partly because Conway is looking for lasting solutions. Demand for nurses is so high right now that anyone with a degree will be able to obtain employment.
Conway’s wife, Joanne, also influenced him.
“My wife had a lot to do with this. She just thought, nurses. She thought people who had nursing degrees could get jobs. It’s that simple,” Conway said.
Conway was also impressed with the work of nurses who cared for his parents, both of whom died in the past year.
“My parents dying, the need for jobs. It all kind of came together and said, okay, here’s a way we can do it,” Conway said.
One of the beneficiaries will be Trinity Washington University in Northeast, which serves a predominantly low-income population and selects about 60 students a semester to be nursing majors.
“Many students stop going to school because they just run out of money,” Trinity President Pat McGuire said.
“The jobs are there. They need education.”
The remaining $25 million in Conway’s initial grants are going to other local groups that help low-income people, either by educating them or providing food and shelter. These include $10 million to Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, $10 million to Catholic Charities and $5 million to the Center for Employment Training at SOME (So Others Might Eat) in Southeast.
When he started this process, Conway was looking for ways to create jobs for the poor. He described that goal in an interview with me in September 2011. I wrote a column in which he invited the public to submit ideas.
That didn’t work out so well. The response overwhelmed him. It required four people to vet the e-mails.
Ultimately, Conway decided he was on the wrong track. The greater need was to help the poor qualify for employment.
“I concluded out of all this that it was extremely difficult to create jobs,” Conway said. “The objective I get to is similar, but I never thought I’d actually get there this way.”
Of all the e-mails he received, only one led directly to a grant. It came from Kelly McShane, executive director of Community of Hope, based in Northwest. She asked for, and obtained, $70,000 for a pilot program to train people to be medical receptionists and medical assistants.
McShane met with Conway around Christmas.
“I was a little nervous, but I found him so thoughtful and strategic and genuine, and really figuring out how to make an impact in the community,” McShane said.
That’s a model for other philanthropists in our region, which, we recently learned, includes seven of the nation’s 10 most affluent counties.
If other well-to-do people followed Conway’s example, we might go a long way to eradicating the pockets of poverty that still mar our otherwise exceptionally prosperous community.
Robert McCartney discusses local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.