A program for educators that inspired elementary school teachers to broach tough subjects, including the atom bomb. A special village where homeless, single parents get jobs, go to college, and change their children’s lives. An institute devoted to regenerative medicine, the science and practice of replacing damaged tissue or organs.
As the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund marks its 25th year of giving, we celebrate hundreds of hardworking partners, scores of innovations, and generations of healthier families. We also look back on years of momentum, increasing focus, and an evolving, increasingly sophisticated role as an agent of change. In fact, change could be the Fund’s de facto watchword.
Twenty-five years ago, the McGowan Fund was launched in recognition of William G. McGowan, an entrepreneur and innovator who transformed a struggling local radio service into MCI, the $9.5 billion telecommunications giant. Along the way, he helped to dismantle the AT&T monopoly and changed American business. He believed in the power of education, the urgency of community needs, and the promise of medical research—values that have guided the Fund. In the early years of the Fund, Sue Gin-McGowan, Bill’s wife and an entrepreneur in her own right, and Monsignor Andrew J. McGowan, Bill’s brother, led the board of directors.
In those early years, the board placed an emphasis on higher education, building two business schools and providing $11 million in college scholarships. In the area of human services, grants went to community organizations in the regions where the board members resided. In the area of medical research, support focused on end-stage heart failure, launching the McGowan Center for Artificial Organ Development and, later, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, now one combined institution at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Throughout, the Fund required strong planning and measurable results from its grantees.
Today, the 13-member board is led by William P. McGowan, chair, and Leo A. McGowan, president, both nephews of William G. McGowan. Now a second-generation family foundation, the Fund has honed its giving, taking national concerns into account, while maintaining a focus on the communities where trustees live and its long-standing vision to help people overcome poverty and live healthy, sustainable lives.
What Would Bill Do?
One such change was inspired by the 2008 national financial crisis. Reflecting Bill McGowan’s focus on ethics, the Fund’s board was concerned about failures in business leadership at the highest levels. Accordingly the Fund transformed its traditional scholarship program into the McGowan Fellows Program, which handpicks 10 students who demonstrate ethical leadership potential and an interest in the betterment of society from the nation’s top business schools. As part of the fellowship, the students collaborate on a social impact project.
Another such shift occurred in 2015. Although the national recession had resolved, 45,000 children in America were still homeless. Among the Fund’s six regions at the time—Chicago, Denver metro and Eagle County, Kansas City metro, Northeastern Pennsylvania, Reno metro, and Rochester metro and Yates County—the statistics were sobering. For instance, 9 percent of schoolchildren in Rochester were homeless. The McGowan board shifted its broad human services agenda to support more wraparound programs that battle homelessness and its causes.
With these developments in hand, the work continues to be thoughtful and robust. In 2017 alone, the Fund battled poverty and improved lives through nearly $7.1 million in grants. Among the programs: a school for children with neurological problems that achieves a 100 percent graduation rate and a fast-track training program with a job placement rate of 90 percent.
In the last 25 years, the Fund has put $55.1 million toward education, $57.5 million toward human services, and $31.1 million toward healthcare and medical research through our program grants. “Behind those numbers are thousands of children and families—educated, trained, fed, treated, housed, and put on sustainable paths,” notes Diana Spencer, executive director.
It’s fitting that a funding initiative created in recognition of a change-maker would continue evolving. Having supported innovations in gene therapy aimed at end-stage heart disease by founding the McGowan Institute, the Fund has recently placed greater focus on disease prevention. Two programs aimed at lowering obesity rates and risk for heart disease show promise for national expansion. These include Healthy Way to Grow, inaugurated by the Fund and managed by the American Heart Association, which was adopted by 60 early childhood centers outside the Fund’s regions; and ELM (Eat Well, Love Better, Move More), a lifestyle program designed by Rush University Medical Center’s Department of Preventive Medicine, now in strategic planning for a clinical trial rollout in the Fund’s regions.
“We’ve shifted focus when needed while maintaining our commitment to help people overcome poverty and live healthier and more productive lives,” notes Spencer. “That consistency and capacity to change are tributes to our founders, Sue Gin-McGowan and Monsignor McGowan. The successes belong to our smart and collaborative partner organizations and grantees.”