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Julius Rosenwald is one of our philanthropic heroes. In the early 1910s, having already made business history by transforming Sears, Roebuck & Co. into the Amazon of its day, he set out on an even more audacious mission: to remedy the huge gap in elementary and secondary education for African Americans. In partnership with Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald sparked the creation of the Rosenwald Schools—a term used informally to describe a loose network of nearly 5,000 schools established to educate African American children across the Southern part of the United States. He contributed start-up funding for many of the schools, and, in a groundbreaking move, succeeded in drawing in money from state and county governments.
Big bets on social change, like the one Rosenwald made, are relatively rare—despite the great desire of most major donors to advance such causes.2 That rarity is heart-wrenching, given that big bets can have extraordinary impact. They can radically change the organizations or social movements they support, creating leaps in their recipients’ abilities or long-term ambitions. Mind you, it’s not a quick process. The biggest bets generally come out of years of work and build on multiple smaller grants.