John and Tashia Morgridge would be near the top of any list of philanthropic power couples.
Mr. Morgridge, former chief executive of Cisco Systems, and Ms. Morgridge, who worked as a special-education teacher, have given more than $266-million since 2004, according to The Chronicle‘s annual tallies. Last summer they signed the Giving Pledge, a statement saying they will donate at least half their net worth to charity.
Married for 55 years, the Morgridges run a family foundation, the Tosa Foundation, named after the Wisconsin high school they both attended.
The Chronicle caught up with the Morgridges at the Global Philanthropy Forum, an annual meeting for donors who support global causes. The couple’s long history together is evident; they’re as likely to finish each other’s sentences as their own.
The Morgridges say their most challenging philanthropic experience has been in the schools of East Palo Alto, Calif. For the past 23 years, they have been supporting a program to improve literacy, but it’s been hampered by turnover in school leadership and the frequency with which students move in and out of the school district.
Mr. Morgridge says the experience has taught them how important it is to identify strong leaders who can carry a project forward. “If you just pick a location, there is no guarantee that you will find the right set of people,” he says.
Another big lesson, says Ms. Morgridge, has been just how tough it is to work in poor neighborhoods, “where the schools have to deal with enormous numbers of issues that students bring to school. ”
Mr. Morgridge says he feels good about helping needy students, but the experience has made him think seriously about how to approach education philanthropy.
“If we look at all the money we invested there, you could make the argument we’d be better off starting a charter school and funding that,” he says. “It gets down to the question as to whether you want to impact the whole, or whether you want to do what a lot of boutique education programs do, which is take out a certain percentage [of students] and ensure they actually get full benefit.”
An ‘Easy’ Pledge
In addition to their giving in East Palo Alto schools, the Morgridges support a $175-million program that provides college scholarships for Wisconsin high-school graduates and an institute for scientific research at the University of Wisconsin. The couple recently started an effort, the Wisconsin Technology Initiative to aid Wisconsin public schools. The Morgridges also give smaller amounts to CARE, the Nature Conservancy, and many other charities.
The couple say they signed the Giving Pledge in part because it was “easy”: They’d already planned to give much of their money away. (Forbes estimated their worth in March at $1.2-billlion.) Plus, they hope it inspires more charity among the very wealthy.
“There is a huge amount of wealth that’s generated here in Silicon Valley,” says Mr. Morgridge. “To be fair, there are quiet givers. But certainly the standard I would set, not many of them would make it.”
Still, the Morgridges say they understand people’s hesitancy to give in a very public way, having been relatively quiet donors for most of their lives. They say that’s part of the reason they give a lot in Wisconsin and less in California.
“We don’t live there,” says Mr. Morgridge. “And also, we can afford that state.”
Though they give millions to higher-education institutions, the Morgridges say they are aware of the criticism that rich people focus too much of their charity on universities.
But Mr. Morgridge says that universities can absorb much more money than social-service groups—and universities also endure in a way that other types of charities may not.
“If you look at higher-education institutions that existed 100 years ago, and the ones that exist today, guess what? You have the same list,” he says. “They are very permanent institutional structures that to some degree guarantee the multi-generational impact of your funding.”
The Morgridges say they haven’t cooked up any plans for new big gifts but that they are certain they’ll find more things to support.
“We don’t have the next idea right now,” says Ms. Morgridge. “But we are very much aware.”
“We’re always looking,” says her husband.
“We’re always looking,” she echoes. “We have the ‘ah-ha’ moment where we say, ‘You know what? We can do that.’”