A Philanthropic Family Helps the City They Love
June 11, 2015
Karl and Kathy Alexander are happy to be urban dwellers in a Fells Point condo after living in Baltimore County and then in a large townhouse. “I love Baltimore and grew up here,” says Kathy, publicity manager for the Johns Hopkins University Press. “Karl grew up in Philadelphia, so we’re both comfortable in the city and want to give back to the community.” The direction for their charitable giving has emerged from both personal experience and scholarly research, and it has become a vital focus in their lives.
“I’m interested in education and communities,” says Karl, who recently retired as a research sociologist and chair of the Department of Sociology at the Johns Hopkins University. “BCF focuses on strengthening neighborhoods and building success through schools, and both are tremendously important for young people growing up—especially in places like Baltimore, where there are so many challenges to neighborhood life and maintaining an excellent school system. The Foundation is spot on in terms of its priorities.”
He should know. For 25 years, beginning in 1982, he and a colleague worked on a research study of 790 children in 20 Baltimore City public schools. “From first grade, we watched as they worked their way through the school system and into their young adult years, until they were in their late 20s,” he notes. “In two post-high school surveys, we interviewed 80 percent of the original group. I talked to the young people, their families, and their teachers along the way. We found what we expected: that getting off to a good start in school and having a good support system makes a huge difference.”
Their findings were published last year in a book, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood, which has garnered national attention. “At age 28,” he says, “just a little more than 4 percent of the low-income children had a bachelor’s degree compared to 45 percent of children from middle-class families—a gigantic, ten-fold disparity. But it’s not just income; it’s parent education level and emotional support at home. Middle class parents understand better than most low-income parents what it takes to succeed in school, and they provide a better support network along the way. The combination has the effect of moving children along very different school and life trajectories.”
The researchers also looked at neighborhood profiles. “We learned that a low-income neighborhood isn’t necessarily a distressed neighborhood, and the difference is of monumental importance to young people,” Karl says. “Strengthening neighborhoods and building up a sense of community identity and solidarity is a big deal. It helps tamp down predatory crime, and good neighbors look after one another’s children. Schools and neighborhoods are critically important to healthy development of young children, and the Foundation is focused on both. BCF is a good match for our interests and our charitable giving objectives.”
Prior to Karl’s retirement, the Alexanders started working on estate planning. Their desire to give back to Baltimore led their legal advisor to suggest they open a charitable fund at BCF. “We are thrilled to be involved with BCF,” Kathy says. “We wanted to engage our children in philanthropy but didn’t know where to start. BCF has made gifting easy and smooth.”
They created a giving plan that involves both generations. Kathy had two children who died, Matthew and Timothy. Her son Chris is now sandwiched in age between Karl’s children, Karen and Brian. The Alexanders created donor-advised funds at BCF that enable each member of the family to donate to charitable causes of his or her choice, locally or nationally, while a combined endowed donor-advised fund requires the children to decide collectively on gifts to organizations in Baltimore.
“You want your children to be compassionate and helpful,” Kathy says. “You raise your children, teach them money sense—but how do you teach them to give back? Many years ago, when I was a single mom and didn’t have much money, our family adopted another family for Christmas. Their circumstances were pitiful, and my children saw that we might struggle, but we were still a lot more fortunate than others. Some very deserving young people simply cannot overcome the barriers in their path. Karl has always been involved with issues of poverty and education, and BCF has helped us put all the pieces together. We now have a plan that will continue to involve our family in the well-being of the city we love.”