Casey Comes to Town

September 18, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Enter the new headquarters of the Annie E. Casey Foundation on the east edge of Mt. Vernon Square and bask in the light-filled atrium of Baltimore's new philanthropic citizen. The foundation's transformation of an ugly-duckling office building into an attractive neighbor for one of the nation's loveliest public spaces suggests that the foundation will be not just a good neighbor, but also an exemplary role model.

Done well, philanthropy can turn relatively small sums of money into a big tool for improving the lives of many people. Done poorly, it fails to justify congressional intent in shielding personal fortunes from the public treasury. The Annie E. Casey Foundation does its job well.

The foundation was established in 1948 by the children of Annie E. Casey, but for many years its activities were limited. Then, in the late 1980s, it broke from the ranks of small, family foundations when it received a considerable fortune from the estate of Jim Casey, Annie's son and a founder of the United Parcel Service. With just over $1 billion in assets, the foundation now ranks among the country's largest.

By contrast, Baltimore's next largest foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, has assets of more than $700 million. And the Abell Foundation, probably the most visible of Baltimore's philanthropic foundations, has about $150 million in assets.

The Casey Foundation has distinguished itself by establishing a vision and sticking to it. The plan is simple -- doing the most good for as many disadvantaged children as possible. But even with a billion dollars to support some $67 million in grants this year, making that money work effectively is not as easy as it sounds.

Douglas W. Nelson, the foundation's executive director, recalls the thinking behind the strategy that guides the foundation's grant making.

Looking at the vast needs of so many disadvantaged children in America, it was clear that a billion dollars was nowhere near enough to solve these problems. The foundation could use all its funds, spending itself out of existence, and provide only enough money to run New York City's schools for a little more than three months, or the child-welfare system in Illinois for not much longer.

That reality check provided an insight that has served the foundation well: Its job would be not to run things better, but to provide the resources, information and theoretical underpinning for making the billions of dollars already being spent on children and families more effective and efficient. And, in keeping with Jim Casey's own legacy, the foundation would stress accountability for programs that seek to make life better for children.

Hence, the Casey Foundation's imprint on some of the more imaginative and useful projects related to children. The best-known is Kids Count, which is both a national and state-by-state effort to track the educational, economic, social and physical well-being of children in the United States.

Want to know how many children in Maryland die before the age of 15? Or whether more high school graduates are meeting the minimal requirements for entry into the University of Maryland System? Check Maryland's Kids Count Factbook.

Want to know whether births to unmarried teen-age mothers are increasing around the country? Or what the trends are in violent-crime arrest rates for juveniles? Check the national Kids Count Data Book.

By collecting a wide range of data in one place, year after year, these books will enable policy makers to base decisions on facts, not theories. For instance, if states find that despite spending huge sums of money on juvenile justice programs, juvenile crime rates keep going up, perhaps they will then stop and examine why their approach isn't working. The same process should happen in every effort to improve children's lives.

Facts are essential tools in holding people and programs accountable. And without accountability, there is no guarantee that the billions of dollars spent each year on health, education, family support and the like will ever make a positive difference. One part of Casey's genius is in recognizing what simple yet powerful tools the facts can be.

Baltimore is a fitting home for the Casey Foundation. For one thing, the city and state already benefit from a number of the foundation's initiatives, such as the state's ambitious effort to reform its services to families and children, largely by instituting changes that increase efficiency and accountability.

There's another reason as well: As Doug Nelson puts it, ''Baltimore represents to me the combination of problems and resources that make change both necessary and possible.''

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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