Stand Together: The Koch-Backed Anti-Poverty Group Starting off 2019 with a Bang

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 24, 2019.

Stand Together, a nonprofit backed by the Koch family and its network, plans to give $10 to $15 million in grants in January to mark “Poverty Awareness Month.” The organization has already distributed more than $6.5 million, which leaves millions in grants yet to come.

The nonprofit is funded through the Seminar Network, a group of hundreds of business leaders led by Charles Koch. The network professes a desire to remove the “internal and external barriers” that hold people back through social entrepreneurship.

Charles Koch is well known in philanthropy circles for his extensive giving on college campuses to promote free market ideas and scholarship. Of course, the Koch name is also strongly associated with right-wing political donations and activism. Yet in recent years, Koch money has started to flow in some more surprising directions—like the $25 million the Charles Koch Foundation gave to the United Negro College Fund in 2014 and the $25.2 million it gave to the Thurgood Marshall Fund in 2017. The foundation and Koch Industries has also thrown its weight behind criminal justice reform, backing both research and policy advocacy on this issue.

Philosophically Driven

Some have suggested Koch has shifted his philanthropy as part of a broader rebranding effort aimed at repairing damage to the Koch brand that has hurt the family’s business, one of the largest private companies in America. While that may be, it’s also true that the kinder and gentler face of Charles Koch’s philanthropy has hemmed fairly closely to the principles he’s long espoused. For example, libertarians like Koch have often warned against excesses in the criminal justice system, which they see as an example of government overreach.

Stand Together also operates in sync with Charles Koch’s worldview in its work, partnering with nonprofits to combat poverty.

The groups Stand Together supports tend to focus on six areas—addiction and mental health, financial empowerment and entrepreneurship, prison reform, re-entry and second chances, workforce development and job training, youth and education, and housing and homelessness. Stand Together’s January giving is going to grantees in each of those areas.

So far, the grants include $1.25 million toward prison reform and re-entry programs, $1.85 million to financial security and empowerment organizations and $3.55 million to support job training for the chronically unemployed.

The grants are funding organizations that Stand Together has worked with in the past. Those include Last Mile in California and Other Side Academy in Utah, which work with the formerly incarcerated, and Rising Tide Capital and dfree®, two New Jersey-based organizations that address financial independence.

The $3.55 million for job training supports eight organizations, including Cara and i.c.Stars in Illinois, Chrysalis in California, N-Power and Per Scholas in New York, Orion Industries in Washington, the Women’s Bean Project in Colorado and the WorkFaith Connection in Texas.

Given the areas addressed in the first three sets of grants announced, the remainder of Stand Together’s January gifts are likely to address addiction and mental health, youth and education, and housing and homelessness.

Building a Network

So far, none of these grantees are newcomers to the Stand Together orbit. They’re all members of what the organization calls the “Catalyst Network.” The way Stand Together approaches its work is by partnering with 10 to 16 nonprofits at the time, which it calls “catalysts.”

Each cohort of nonprofits participates in the six-month Catalyst Program, which introduces nonprofit leaders to Koch Industries’ business management philosophy. After completing the program, nonprofits remain in the Catalyst Network, which is now more than 100 organizations strong.

Stand Together also provides the cohort with financial resources and a chance to get in front of the seminar network, which can lead to further investment.

Stand Together is anti-poverty philanthropy with an approach that is further to the right than we usually see. Many of the highest-profile foundations addressing poverty tend to have reputations as progressive givers, like the Ford or W.K. Kellogg foundations.

Conservative anti-poverty funders don’t tend to get much attention, but they’ve long been active in a range of issue areas, and many are involved in the Philanthropy Roundtable, the right’s national foundation association. If you take a spin around that organization’s website, including the section on economic opportunity, you’ll get a good sense of the kinds of anti-poverty efforts that its members support. A key through-line is a strong emphasis on promoting self-reliance, personal responsibility, and the values of work.

Stand Together’s grantmaking prioritizes business practices to scale nonprofit work. A big part of the catalyst program is teaching participants Market-Based Management, a system developed and used by Koch Industries.

What Success Looks Like

Stand Together also sees the path to scaling a bit differently from more progressive foundations. Many philanthropies see their role as supporting work in the short to medium term, with the understanding that philanthropy’s ability to scale interventions in the long term without public sector support is limited.

Early childhood education is a good example of this dynamic—funders have stepped in to support the field and get it off the ground. However, most see increased government support as the best way to make early education available to every child.

Unsurprisingly, Stand Together doesn’t see government involvement as necessary or desirable when it comes to scaling the work it supports. The emphasis is on the power of the individual.

Emphasis on the individual runs throughout Stand Together’s operating philosophy, which contrasts with the emphasis on the collective often seen from the left. The organization makes a point of acknowledging the external barriers that prevent economic mobility, so the message isn’t exactly that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Rather, the emphasis is on the individual social entrepreneurs and individual members of the Seminar Network who invest in them.