Charles Koch and a Sports Legend Walk Into a Bar Together. Will Poverty Fall as a Result?

Deion Sanders

Deion Sanders

As we’ve pointed out time and again, David and Charles Koch are eager for an image makeover. After decades spent attacking governmental overreach and financing the right’s policy infrastructure, as well as bankrolling GOP candidates, the Kochs found themselves with a family and company brand that had become synonymous with extremist and self-interested politics. Among other things, their recent efforts to repair that damage have included large-scale grants to institutions that help African Americans and stepped up work on bipartisan criminal justice reform, as we've been reporting. 

What's received less attention is Koch backing for a new national anti-poverty group Stand Together, which recently led Charles Koch to find a surprising ally in Deion Sanders, a larger-than-life figure also known by the nickname “Primetime." Sanders has the distinction of being the only athlete to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. Following such an illustrious sports career, Sanders wants to give back, and he’s doing so in partnership with Koch and Stand Together. 

According to Sanders, Koch is hardly the profit-hungry villain he’s sometimes made out to be. Commenting on a new joint effort between himself and the Koch-backed "venture philanthropy" organization, Sanders says, “I saw firsthand how wonderful and gracious and giving and kind the Koch family was in regards to really trying to make this country a better place for everyone.” High praise indeed, especially from a celebrity with very different roots than the usual Koch set. 

The sports legend hooked up with the libertarian funding juggernaut through Sanders' pastor Omar Jahwar, who runs a Dallas-based program to help former gang members become anti-gang advocates. Jahwar’s program, Urban Specialists, is one of several dozen members of Stand Together’s “Catalyst Network,” which receive funding and operations support from the wider Koch network. 

This isn’t Sanders’ first foray into fundraising. Following Hurricane Katrina, he challenged the nation’s professional athletes to donate $1,000 each to the relief effort. In 2012, Sanders also founded a set of Texas charter schools that shuttered three years later amid controversy.

Sanders’ fundraising initiative through Stand Together, dubbed Prime 5, aims to raise $21 million for anti-poverty "catalysts" in the city of Dallas. As you’d expect, the Kochs’ libertarian up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy runs deeply through most of Stand Together’s initiatives. As Sanders said in a Prime 5 promotional video, “If you’re willing to work hard, there are people willing to work hard with you.” No handouts here, thank you. 

This is all about giving impoverished people a chance to succeed on their own, preferably in the freest possible of markets. As for nonprofits, Stand Together takes a corresponding view: “The social return on an investment becomes measurable and replicable when community-based nonprofit organizations focus on outcomes and operate with the same management principles as for-profit businesses.”

In the Koch brothers’ far-flung network, Stand Together is very much a newcomer. Founded in early 2016 and operating around the country, the initiative focuses less on policy, preferring partnerships and direct support for groups tackling social problems. Stand Together says it believes "the most effective solutions to poverty address its roots while harnessing the gifts and talents of an individual to foster self-sufficiency. We partner with organizations that uphold the dignity of individuals by tapping into their potential and that promote a culture of freedom, well-being and respect." Its venture philanthropy model seeks to "identify and cultivate promising organizations with the potential for scalable impact," and to support those groups in various ways.

Koch backing of Stand Together is part of a larger shift toward a kinder and gentler philanthropic profile, which included a 2014 gift of $25 million to the United Negro College Fund, and another outlay of $25.6 million to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund this year. 

The top leadership of Stand Together includes former executives from Booz Allen and the National Association of Manufacturers. Evan Feinberg, who previously led the Koch-backed youth engagement group Generation Opportunity, serves as executive director.

Can a Beltway anti-poverty group like Stand Together and a new partnership with a high-profile black athlete like Sanders solve the Kochs' image problem? That’s a tall order, given the sibling philanthropists’ longstanding (and continuing) support for organizations and politicians that tend to be viewed with distrust by low-income people and minorities.