Philanthropists Janet Levinger & Will Poole share how they give as a family to power change in education
This article was first published in Seattle Foundation’s Heart & Science magazine, Volume 4.
The pair met at a house party when they were students at Brown University. She was an English major raised in Sioux City, Iowa by a retail store owner and a homemaker in a tight-knit Jewish community. He was a computer science guy, the East Coast son of a professor and a stay-at-home mom.
After stints in Boston and the Bay Area, the couple moved to Bellevue when Microsoft purchased Poole’s startup company, eShop. Levinger ended her technology marketing firm to raise their two children. But, service soon beckoned.
She joined the board of Child Care Resources, which works to provide access to quality child care. Then her son’s experience in a poorly managed kindergarten class highlighted the importance of teacher quality and the systemic challenges in public schools. The day they decided to move their son to a private school, Levinger started volunteering with the Bellevue Schools Foundation. They tried public school again when their son was in sixth grade, but it wasn’t working any better for him so Levinger went all in. In 2002, Levinger and three co-leaders founded a new school, Eastside Prep, to provide a challenging curriculum and hands-on learning. She and Poole were its first donors.
This was no plush, high-tech academy. The building was leased. The desks were bought as scrap from a school district, then sanded and painted. Teachers built close relationships and ate with their students, who were invited to give feedback. The school started with 17 students in sixth and seventh grades. It now has 420, with plans to grow to 500.
Levinger did the marketing and fundraising, while others oversaw finances, academics and administration.
“Put it this way,” Poole said, “I was a senior vice president at Microsoft at the time and she was working as hard as I was.”
“What kept us going was a vision of a really different type of school, one that was focused on really strong critical thinking but also on the social-emotional side. And we wanted a very interdisciplinary, experiential approach because people learn best that way,” said Levinger.
“One thing that Janet and I have learned is that if you don’t invest in selecting, training, supporting and retraining really good teachers, you’re wasting your time,” said Poole. “It doesn’t matter what tech or other resources you’ve got; you have to have effective teachers.”
Janet Levinger has served on the boards of 15 nonprofits, including United Way of King County, the League of Education Voters, Thrive Washington and the King County Youth and Children Advisory Board. She is a member of Seattle Foundation’s Board of Trustees, chairing the community programs committee. Will Poole is managing partner of Capria, a global impact investing firm that funds companies that create positive social impact while earning market-rate returns.
A decade ago, Levinger realized that giving to a wide array of programs wasn’t effective. So she concentrated her giving, particularly in education, and took an upstream approach to increasing equity.
Poole focuses on impact investing in developing countries. One of his ventures is Hippocampus Learning Centres, the largest preschool program in rural India. It provides an affordable high-quality program and trains primary school teachers. “Talk about a great place to figure out how to scale up with one billion people,” Poole says.
Poole also brought the Fast Pitch social innovation competition to Seattle for Social Venture Partners, which connects and invests in people and organizations to create sustainable, just communities. Levinger and Poole became early members in 1997, drawn to the thoughtful combination of giving and action rather than just check writing.
“As we’ve gone through our journey in philanthropy, at each stage there have been partners, friends and colleagues who are thinking about the same things: how you go from direct service to systems change, how you focus your giving to have more impact,” said Levinger, who also co-founded Eastside Pathways, a collective impact effort to support kids and families to be successful in school and life.
Now, their journey moves to an exciting new stage as they expand their family philanthropy through Seattle Foundation to their adult children, William and Sarah. This next generation is also passionate about education and reforming unjust systems, in addition to the environment and reproductive rights.