The Washington power couple Donald and Ann Brown have long been known for their generosity, giving away millions of dollars to a wide range of large arts and education institutions in the region.
But the couple’s latest donation marked a change, and in the process they joined a growing group of wealthy donors backing good works where they can see tangible results.
The Browns gave $100,000 to provide beds to the needy.
The money is to support an effort by A Wider Circle, a Silver Spring nonprofit organization that provides various services to families living in poverty, such as providing furniture to families leaving shelters. One of the biggest requests the group gets is for beds. Last year alone, the group received 12,000 phone calls from people making the request. A Wider Circle could meet only about half the need.
The couple’s donation aims to fund a bed for everyone who asks. They have named the program Browns’ Beds.
Donald Brown, 85, is known for starting the law firm Brown, Gildenhorn & Jacobs.
The District firm specialized in real estate development and finance and evolved into what is now the local development giant JBG.
Ann Brown established her career as a consumer advocate, serving as chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Clinton administration.
For years, the couple has supported groups including the Washington National Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, Arena Stage and more than a dozen schools — but now they want to see their dollars generate a palpable social return in poorer communities.
“We’re very interested in value for what we give,” Donald Brown said. “We’ve worked hard for what we have, and in terms of philanthropic efforts, we want to be sure we’re getting our money’s worth.”
“It’s called bang for the buck,” Ann Brown cut in matter-of-
Donald Brown said contributing to arts programs is important but “not a high priority for us anymore, because it’s not the same as giving to people who don’t have a chance.”
So why the shift?
Donald Brown attributes it to his encounter with the head of A Wider Circle, Mark Bergel. Bergel, who was named a CNN Hero in February, is one of the more idealistic nonprofit leaders in the city. Bergel donated his own bed and pledged to go without one until every Washingtonian in need has one of their own.
That boldness caught the attention of Donald Brown. As it happened, he already knew something of the charity from JBG associates who had been volunteering at the charity.
While Brown was staying at his Florida home, Bergel paid a visit hoping to solicit support. Brown did research on the group’s financial situation and then took a few family members to tour A Wider Circle’s facility on a Sunday morning.
“I was sold,” Brown said. “I knew then that it was going to be an important part of our future philanthropy.”
He was struck to see how people in need were receiving immediate services.
Still, just writing a check was not sufficient for Brown. He wanted to make sure he could see the change.
“He and I are a lot alike in that way,” Bergel said. “There’s a difference between providing a service and getting an outcome.”
The Browns decided to offer $100,000 as a matching grant. Already, a Wider Circle has received $16,000 from two other donors to support the effort since the Browns announced the grant, and additional fundraising is underway.
The charity hopes to begin giving away the beds in July after finding a manufacturer that will provide the best price.
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