There’s nothing like $1 billion in available cash to get people’s attention.
Local philanthropist Bill Conway said he’s been “overwhelmed” by the responses he’s gotten since my Sunday column asking for ideas about how to spend most of his vast wealth on charity. Specifically, he is looking for ways to create sustainable jobs for the poor.
Conway has received more than 700 e-mails. They range from one-sentence suggestions to multi-page presentations with spreadsheets and financial cost-benefit analyses. One of my favorites, from a reader in Oakton, was to invest in “technical schools” to teach people electronics repair, aircraft mechanics, plumbing or other skills.
“A lot of good technical jobs go unfilled because our colleges/
universities have become money machines and overlook some of our most basic needs,” the e-mail said. “Get our grass roots moving again!”
Conway has heard from welfare recipients, college professors, the mayor’s office and legions of philanthropic groups eager for funds. It’s going to require at least a month of study to pick which ones to support.
“We’ve really created a tiger here. I’m going to have to help solve the jobs problem by hiring people to help me evaluate the proposals,” said Conway, who lives in McLean and is a co-founder of the District-based Carlyle Group investment firm.
Overall, Conway has been impressed by the quality of what he’s received. “Many of them have been very, very creative and thoughtful. I think a lot of them have some merit,” he said. “Of course, there were some ideas that were a little crazy. I’d rather not say which ones.”
Because I had the foresight (for once) to ask people to copy me in on the responses, I’ve seen most of them. I haven’t had time to read them all (apologies to those neglected), but I’ve looked at enough to form an impression.
Some proposals were easy to predict: Lend money to small businesses struggling to expand. Train the poor to repair the region’s infrastructure. Hire unemployed construction workers to rehabilitate foreclosed houses.
Others were offbeat: Encourage grocery stores to hire additional clerks to replace self-checkout machines. Invest in what the writer confidently described as a revolutionary (although still unpatented) anti-cancer drug. Have people spend five minutes drawing triangles, squares and circles, and use the results to “create a shared mental model” that will “tilt the axis of human history a few degrees.” (This last one came from a man who claimed to be a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech.)
Only a few were mere personal appeals for charity, such as from a suburban Maryland man who asked Conway to cover moving expenses so that his wife and son could come from Colorado to live with him.
I was struck by people’s gratitude toward Conway. It was refreshing, in our jaded era, to see so many notes sincerely thanking someone for trying to make a positive difference.
(There were exceptions. A Bethesda corporate tax lawyer suggested cynically that Conway was offering to spend $1 billion to help the poor in coming years because he was “feeling a little guilty about all the insider government information and contacts his group has benefited from.”)
It also was sobering to see so many worthy goals that aren’t being met because money is tight. A man in Springfield said he needed a six-month, $20,000 loan to open a group home for intellectually disabled adults in Reston. A woman in Accokeek said a charter school in the District needed funds for medical and counseling services to prevent ninth- and 10th-grade students from dropping out because of medical problems or neglect or abuse at home.
Above all, I was impressed by the degree of difficulty in the challenge that Conway has set for himself. He doesn’t want to give handouts or create temporary jobs. He’s looking for projects that will result in permanent positions.
That could mean that the projects generate enough revenue to continue to pay salaries even after Conway’s $1 billion runs out. It’s a hard task creating such positions, even for established companies with abundant resources — just look at the unemployment rate. Only a handful of the proposals seemed designed to be self-sustaining in that way.
Conway said he also might focus on providing training and education for people so they can get jobs that already exist. “What came across in many comments was that there are jobs out there, but there’s a mismatch in skills,” he said.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:51 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM).