4 min read

It’s a general problem of philanthropy that foundations do not get the coverage they deserve. That doesn’t mean that journalists have to turn in stories about every press release foundations do, but they should get at least as much coverage as colleges and universities of the same size. Readers ought to know something about what the large foundations in their area are and what they do.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, for example, has been in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. since 1997. It’s a pretty big foundation, with around $650 million in assets. But this piece by Leonard Shapiro in the Washington Post Magazine is the first lengthy article I’ve read on the foundation’s activities.

Jack Kent Cooke was born in 1912 in the blue-collar town of Hamilton, Ontario. He started selling soap when he was 14 and never stopped working. I think much of his money came from real estate, but some of it came because he was an early investor in cable television.

Cooke became an American in the mid-1950s, and started his career with the Washington Redskins in 1961 when he bought a quarter of the team. His control of the team steadily increased until 1985, when he became sole owner. Under his ownership, the Redskins played in five Super Bowls and won three. Cooke was a frequent attendee at home games, waving to fans from the “Jack Kent Cooke seats” in the mezzanine.1

I get the sense that football ownership is more family-owned than other sports. The actor Rooney Mara, for example, has a name to show her descent from her mother’s family, the Rooneys (owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers) and her father’s family, the Maras (owners of the New York Giants).

So it was always assumed that Cooke’s son, John Kent Cooke, would inherit the Redskins. But in the mid-1990s, Cooke worked to build a new stadium for the Redskins in the Maryland suburbs of Washington (which is now called FedEx Field). He also decided he wanted to sell the Redskins and use the money for charity.

According to Shapiro, Cooke “wanted to endow the foundation with enough funds to be a world-class operation and assure that he would be remembered as a great philanthropist.” Shapiro quotes an unfortunately anonymous source who said that Cooke “wanted his legacy to be the foundation, and giving the team to John would have interfered significantly” with the plans for the foundation.

So when Jack Kent Cooke died in 1997, his son joined with partners in a bid to buy the Redskins. He raised $750 million, but Dan Snyder had $800 million and has owned the Redskins ever since.

The Cooke Foundation started operations in 2000. They say that ever since they’ve given $152 million in college scholarships.

According to John Kent Cooke (who is on the foundation’s board) his father decided that his foundation would be devoted to helping deserving students pay for college because “Dad always revered education, I think, because he didn’t get it. He never graduated from high school. He’d always say, ‘What could I have accomplished if I had gone to college?’”

You might not think the Cooke Foundation’s goal is very interesting, but here are some reasons why you ought to pay more attention to what they do.

First, as I understand it, the Cooke Scholarships are the largest program of its kind. They are a large private scholarship program, but for colleges instead of high schools. They should be compared to programs that help low-income children find good private high schools.

But what registered the Cooke Foundation in my mind is the long-time association with the radio program “From the Top,” that works with high school students pursuing careers in classical music. The Cooke Foundation awards about ten of these students scholarships to go to college and become classical musicians. My sense is that these Cooke Arts Scholarships are about ten percent of the funds the Cooke Foundation hands out each year. As someone who loves classical music, this seems to me to be a good use of Cooke Foundation funds, and it’s a program that isn’t duplicated elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean the Cooke Foundation’s record is unblemished. They have awarded since 2015 a million-dollar prize called the Cooke Award for Equity in Educational Excellence to the school they say has done the most to allow low-income kids to go to college. I see no reason for the existence of this prize, an unrestricted gift to colleges that they can use for whatever they want, including throwing it in their endowment. The money would be better used for scholarships.

Finally, I wish Shapiro had asked the Cooke Foundation why their founder wanted his foundation to be a perpetual one. I am sure there is some lawyer who convinced Cooke that the only “world-class” foundations are perpetual ones. Of course, if the Cooke Foundation had a term limit, they could give far more scholarships now then they are doing.

Leonard Shapiro was right that the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation was an undiscovered story. But there’s a lot more about the foundation that’s worth reporting about. The Philanthropy Roundtable has covered some aspects of the Cooke Foundation’s giving, such as this 2009 piece from Philanthropy by Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews.

But the Cooke Foundation needs more coverage than it’s gotten, and Shapiro’s piece should not be considered the definitive word on the foundation’s activities.


1 You’ve seen RFK if you watched X-Men: Days of Future Past, when Magneto levitates it and drops it on the White House in a failed attempt to crush President Nixon. Those of us who saw baseball or soccer games in this crumbling ruin this century quietly cheered.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *