The Complications of Big Philanthropy in a Small City
by Michael Mason
“It is a truism to say that Tulsa is the most American of American Cities. All the forces that have gone into the making of the Republic have been intensified here.” —Angie Debo, Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital
April 20, 2020, was an unimaginable day for most Tulsans. An essential economic engine had suddenly been thrown into reverse. For the first time in history, the price of oil plummeted so far that futures went negative. Though Tulsa is no longer the oil capital it once was, the oil and gas industry still provides income for 150,000 Oklahomans. News of the price collapse stunned the community.
“There will be some very big problems,” former Tulsa mayor Dewey Bartlett told Tulsa World. “The oil and gas industry has been one of the most philanthropic-oriented groups. That will immediately go away.”
That same day, the current mayor of Tulsa, G.T. Bynum, announced that he had formed an Economic Recovery Advisory Committee to deal with the ramifications of the pandemic—a news item that barely elicited a yawn. Michael Bates, a local blogger, caught notice though and posted a scathing analysis.
“The mayor’s picks for his Economic Recovery Advisory Committee are yet another expression of the tunnel vision of this city’s ruling class,” wrote Bates. Almost none of the 23 members on the council had any actual experience in economics. The committee represented, in Bates’ eyes, Tulsa’s architects of inequality, and they were now poised to exploit a vulnerable city.
In the eyes of many other Tulsans, however, the same people are responsible for the city’s greatest accomplishments in philanthropy and industry.
The names on the committee didn’t surprise me — in fact, they were quite predictable. Several members represent ties to an unusual and complex system at work in Tulsa, a system formed by a man not on the committee: George Kaiser. That system—the Kaiser system—holds clues about Tulsa’s future and about the future of American cities. It’s a system in which the roles of government and philanthropy are increasingly blurred.
The Control Center
George Bruce Kaiser, 77, is a Tulsa businessperson who, through what he would call “the accident of birth,” possesses Kaiser-Francis Oil Company. By some other happenstance, he acquired Bank of Oklahoma [BOK] in 1991 for $61 million and grew its assets to $33 billion. As he amassed wealth, he established the George Kaiser Family Foundation [GKFF] and the Tulsa Community Foundation [TCF], two of America’s largest charities whose missions both involve the betterment of Tulsa.
Kaiser’s holdings add up to a net worth of $5.7 billion, making him the 324th wealthiest person on Forbes’ Real-Time Billionaires list (as of May 2020), but his wealth is the least interesting thing about him. In manner, he comes across as thoughtful and approachable. He says clever and curious things to the press; there are quips about his guilt, the chemical value of his body, imaginary conversations with lobsters, and his robber baron reputation. He has an undergrad and graduate degree from Harvard, has kids and grandkids, and works 70-hour weeks. He doesn’t like to talk about his personal life, an admirable if anachronistic quality. He is also a beloved symbol of success for Tulsa’s Jewish community.[Updated January 2022: The economics of the pandemic nearly doubled Kaiser’s estimated wealth to $10.5 billion.]
“Kaiser’s holdings add up to a net worth of $5.7 billion, making him the 324th wealthiest person on Forbes’ Real-Time Billionaires list (as of May 2020), but his wealth is the least interesting thing about him.”
Like any other bright person, Kaiser is attracted to dangerous ideas, and centralization is one of his favorites. In 2016, The New York Times put it this way:
“If Kaiser could change one structural aspect of the country, he said he’d eliminate the attitude that centralized control is inherently evil.”
Who can deny the appeal of centralized control? It’s more efficient and usually less costly than distributed, decentralized management styles. You can see Kaiser’s devotion to centralized control by looking at the way he set up his organizations. Six men manage BOK, GKFF, and TCF. The Frederic Dorwart Law Firm advises them all and helps them remain legally separate. Each entity appears to act independently and with different missions. But when Kaiser’s organizations act in concert, they accomplish the extraordinary. Businesses spring up, jobs and buildings suddenly appear, and headlines trumpet the bustle of progress.
For all Kaiser’s success in the community, there’s a tradeoff for Tulsans. People from Kaiser’s various organizations occupy numerous boards, commissions, and civic positions; they design, curate and import the city’s arts culture and its park system; they steer public and higher education; they intervene daily in city governance; they run social experiments with taxpayer money; they also guide industry and urban development. Nearly all of these efforts are conducted under the auspice of philanthropy, and almost none are seriously investigated by Tulsa’s media.
The purpose of philanthropy is the welfare of others. Kaiser has no doubt helped thousands and beautified many blighted areas. From all the activity, however, an unpredictable system arose that is riddled with paradoxes, power imbalances, and values that threaten to undermine the very community Kaiser seeks to serve.
Mechanisms of Fear
I don’t know why Tulsans fear Kaiser’s name, but they do. Fear was a consistent expression among the many people I interviewed inside and outside his organizations. They feared retaliation, persecution, loss of funding, and disappeared opportunity. I told one local media figure I was writing a critical essay about Kaiser’s system and he jokingly asked me what the life expectancy was for a journalist with such a project.
I spoke with nearly three dozen people for this article, some of them employed under Kaiser. Many were extremely critical off the record. They believed that they would not only face some sort of retaliation, but their families would, too. People in the media industry told me they feared the loss of advertising dollars. In hushed tones, leaders of organizations told me they would lose customers, business, or philanthropic support — even if Kaiser’s organizations did not directly fund them. Local critics told me they feared being ostracized from all the opportunities that exist because of Kaiser. Criticizing Kaiser’s work, they argued, could mean that thousands of jobs are unavailable to you, that you won’t be acknowledged for your work, that the public will not support you, or that you will face social rebuke. Why would anyone dare speak up?
There is no conspiracy within the Kaiser system to control or harm Tulsa. Such an attitude misunderstands the complexity of a large system, and wrongfully vilifies Kaiser and disrespects his people. I’ve been appalled by the displays of antisemitism Tulsans have openly exhibited against Kaiser, as though his religion or race has anything to do with the missteps of his system.
“There are some who think the Jews, controlling finance, want to control the world. I wouldn’t be surprised,” one former editor of a Tulsa weekly posted on Facebook. Another Tulsa media company illustrated a menacing, liver-spotted Kaiser with his arms around a black child (The editor of the publication denied the image was antisemitic; leaders in the Jewish community felt offended by it.)[Update July 2021: the image has since been removed and the publication is currently defunct.] Antisemitism—racial or religious—has no standing in the realm of legitimate discourse.
“There is no conspiracy within the Kaiser system to control or harm Tulsa. Such an attitude misunderstands the complexity of a large system, and wrongfully vilifies Kaiser and disrespects his people.”
This article argues that disconcerting values and behaviors have emerged from Kaiser’s system, and that no single individual is guiding it. As a matter of due diligence, I emailed George Kaiser last summer and invited him to speak with me about his organizations, and he replied in a blue Comic-Sans font. It turns out he was just as reluctant to go on the record as his employees:
“I am very focused on trying to help young children born into disadvantaged circumstances regain the lost promise of equal opportunity,” he wrote. “I don’t think an interview would advance that purpose. I hope you understand.”
Banking on Paradox
To understand Kaiser’s system, it helps to begin with BOK, the bank owned by Kaiser. With over $30 billion in assets, it operates in several states and employs nearly 5,000. As the majority shareholder, Kaiser commands extraordinary control over BOK and yet allows it to operate in apparent contradiction with the mission of his charities.
One of the most important missions of GKFF is to reduce the cycle of poverty for Tulsans (recently they began using the word “intervene” rather than “reduce”). BOK, however, harms the poor through harsh overdraft fee policies. I spoke with several Tulsa families who had been set back by BOK’s overdraft fees — one person was forced to skip meals and borrow from neighbors. But it isn’t just the poor who believe BOK’s policies are too aggressive — BOK has been sued several times regarding its overdraft fee policies. Over the past decade, the bank has paid out millions of dollars in related settlements, but the fees continue to be a major profit center. In 2016 alone, BOK reported $40.5 million in overdraft fee income — income that primarily comes from the poor and middle class because the wealthy don’t typically overdraft their accounts.
From the perspective of an outsider, it appears that BOK profits millions from its most vulnerable account holders, then transfers those profits to a foundation that, in turn, gives a small percentage of those profits to help many of those same customers. In doing so, BOK undermines GKFF’s mission.
GKFF consistently demonstrates a radical aptitude for creating and supporting prosocial projects, as recently demonstrated by its participation in the Mi Gente program, which gives interest-free microloans to undocumented business owners. Imagine what could happen if that same level of compassion found its way into BOK’s business practices.
Has BOK done anything to rectify its policies, or will it implement any socially- progressive plan to address overdraft fees?
Steve Bradshaw, CEO of BOK, declined to be interviewed for this article, stating travel and other obligations.
The Tulsa Community Foundation Club
The George Kaiser Family Foundation is a “supporting member” of another Kaiser instrument called the Tulsa Community Foundation, whose mission is “primarily for the long term benefit of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area, and Eastern Oklahoma Charitable causes.” TCF is a donor-advised fund with over $4 billion in assets.
TCF works like this: A donor gives money or assets to TCF, which TCF then disperses to a wide variety of organizations. Any donor can advise which organization should receive their money. Why not give directly to a non-profit? Because TCF offers its patrons a number of perks that are simply too good to pass up — among them exceptional tax benefits, free estate planning services, and anonymity. TCF, in turn, enjoys revenues made from the undistributed wealth of its clients through investment strategies managed via BOK and elsewhere. In 2017, it reported over $13 million in investment income.
TCF lists all of its 990 tax forms on its website, but the forms are incomplete. You have to request those or find them using other websites. The full 990 for TCF in 2016 reveals that it distributed over $4 million toward out-of-state scholastic shooting sports: youth-and-guns training programs supported by the firearms industry. That’s more than TCF sent to any other single program that year besides the Gathering Place park. In 2017, TCF’s gun-related contributions more than doubled to over $9.1 million.
Of course, TCF has the right to dispense dollars to wherever its clients direct. But youth gun programs are so far from the foundation’s mission that it makes outsiders question TCF’s real purpose. By redacting tax forms while funding hot-button programs (Planned Parenthood, for example, is another), TCF manages to avoid accountability and public scrutiny. Shouldn’t TCF clients know about these programs, and what their participation in TCF implies? Some may be in a club they didn’t want to join.
TCF grants and gifts money to hundreds of organizations — it’s unusual to find a Tulsa-based nonprofit that does not benefit from TCF’s support. As the CEO of TCF and a city councilor of Tulsa, Phil Lakin is deeply entangled in civic affairs. I figured that as a city councilor, Lakin would regularly recuse himself any time a conflict of issue arose from his position as a public servant, but when I emailed the city councilor’s office to ask for a list of Lakin’s recusals, I was told the city didn’t maintain such a list.
In keeping with TCF’s penchant for secrecy, Lakin didn’t respond to my request for an interview when contacted both through TCF and the city.
Park of the People?
In 2018, TCF and GKFF launched the Gathering Place in Tulsa, the largest privately-donated park in the U.S. According to Tulsa World, Kaiser cooked up the idea for Gathering Place in the early 2000s. To get the park development underway, Kaiser’s people needed to overcome certain obstacles that bureaucracies often create. By 2004, BOK’s Bradshaw was already serving on Tulsa’s River Parks Authority seven-person board (the public-private decisionmaking body for Tulsa’s park system along the Arkansas River). GKFF director Ken Levit joined by 2007 and remained on the board for years, eventually serving as Chairman. In 2009, GKFF bought all the property required for the Gathering Place project. Most Tulsans learned about plans for a big, new park for the first time in May of 2012, nearly a decade after planning had started, and a year after an architectural designer had been hired. It wasn’t until then that Gathering Place managers invited Tulsans to offer ideas and opinions for the park.
The Kaiser system avoided a democratic process thanks to its behind-the-scenes strategizing. Tulsans didn’t have an opportunity to vote on the Gathering Place. When the billionaire Paul Allen tried to donate a large park to the city of Seattle, its citizens voted on the park and rejected it. Other billionaires have failed to launch similarly-sized projects due to public outcry. Just as Kaiser’s system was giving a park to Tulsa, it was taking away Tulsa’s right to decline it.
From the center of the Kaiser system, the Gathering Place looks like a triumph of public-private partnership. The spectacular park beautified Tulsa, and naysayers never had a chance to impede the project with costly complaints. Outside of the center, the lack of transparency filled many Tulsans with a sense of resignation. Our dignity as citizens comes from our political voice, which finds expression when we make decisions. If too many choices are made for us, we risk losing our sense of place and purpose in the community.
Articles have questioned the very origination of the park’s land, debated who exactly owns the Gathering Place (the foundation or the city?), and revealed security issues, plus a whole host of other problems that democracy is supposed to address through patient planning and transparency. Now, the park faces a pandemic-related existential dilemma: people no longer gather as they once did.
Kaiser’s system inevitably bred suspicion among Tulsans. How many other big plans might it have in store for Tulsa that it doesn’t feel obligated to disclose?
I emailed Ken Levit, executive director of GKFF, asking for an interview. He opted not to participate and suggested I direct any questions I had to GKFF’s representative at Saxum, a public relations firm.
Dissent in Dreamland
The Greenwood District is the location of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. During the massacre, the downtown area was decimated by fire and mayhem, rebuilt, and then ravaged again decades later by urban renewal. For many Tulsans, those lands remain as sacred and distressing as any concentration camp or bombing memorial. The Greenwood area, which remains unregistered as a historic district, borders and arguably overlaps with the Historic Brady District, which was named after W. Tate Brady, a Tulsa businessman and Ku Klux Klan member.
GKFF claims it has invested over $100 million in the Brady District (which is promoted as the Tulsa Arts District by the Tulsa Arts District Business Association wishing to distance itself from the Brady name). As one might imagine, the development of properties on the location of hallowed ground has grated the sensibilities of Tulsa’s black community, leaving many feeling as though their history is being bulldozed once again, along with their narrative.
About a year ago, I asked one city official if GKFF had any plans to develop land in the Greenwood area. The city official first demanded anonymity.
“That is almost certainly the case,” the official said. When I posed the same question to GKFF’s public relations contact, she reminded me that “the foundation will not be going on the record.”
In a hopeful move, GKFF established a luxurious building in the heart of the district for artists from all over the U.S. to live and work through a GKFF program called the Tulsa Artist Fellowship [TAF]. Downtown would suddenly be alive with creative types that could breathe culture into the city, and the artists might choose Tulsa as a permanent home.
When word got out that I was writing an article critical of the Kaiser system, many TAF fellows contacted me with offers to be interviewed off the record — about a dozen current and former fellows and related individuals visited with me to express their views about the program. They shared unanimous concerns:
- They felt censored and did not feel at liberty to produce honest work.
- All recounted stories about being under surveillance by administrators, and how they struggled to work in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia.
- A disproportionate amount of their creative time and energy was spent dealing with administrative or PR-related issues created by TAF.
- TAF asked them to sign a 28-page contract (the original contract was 4 pages), but did not provide outside counsel.
- Administrators withheld or rationed out payments for projects as a way to manipulate or coerce the fellows.
- There was no real recourse to address grievances or concerns, and the fellowship’s advisory board had no authority to help them.
All of them described the atmosphere at the fellowship as toxic but viewed their private relationships with each other as invaluable. At some point during my interview process, tensions at the fellowship reached such a crescendo that the fellows requested the help of a mediator. Although one of the fellows is well-versed in conflict resolution, TAF brought in a Dorwart lawyer named Kyden Creekpaum, a Republican conservative Christian who supports the second amendment. A second Dorwart attorney was soon brought in after Creekpaum. A few weeks later, one TAF fellow told me that they could lose their funding for talking to the press without permission.
The grievances voiced by the artists were more than just complaints. Most of the artists I spoke with would not consider Tulsa as a future home, nor wished to return to it. Some felt haunted by the disturbing psychogeography of the area, for which they felt ill-prepared (a Land Acknowledgment sign in the TAF lobby declares “We are standing on the land of the 1921 Race Massacre. We pay respect to these victims and survivors, past and present.”) Several aired concerns that the fellowship actually set their careers back—and have discouraged friends in the art world from applying. Would-be ambassadors became detractors.
Several TAF fellows felt they’d been hired to “reverse gentrify” downtown by adding color and diversity to a white neighborhood with high rental rates. They pointed out that Kaiser’s system is a heavy hand guiding the city’s culture. It dominates the downtown visual arts world, and its literary life as well. The little indie bookstore across the street, Magic City Books, is funded in part by GKFF; another indie bookstore, Fulton Street Books, is owned by a GKFF employee. It’s difficult for artists and writers to succeed, they claim, without help from Kaiser’s system, and it’s difficult to feel free to create art once you accept their terms and conditions.
It may be easy to attribute problems at TAF to its management, but several fellows who experienced a change in directors reported similar problems existed in both periods, though they are now intensified. TAF represents an environment where values, principles and attributes emerge from the Kaiser system and clash in confounding and disconcerting ways.
Are any of Kaiser’s leaders or managers trained to responsibly wield their power and influence? Several Kaiser program participants recounted stories about Kaiser employees abusing their power across boardrooms and in private conversations.
“Most of the artists I spoke with would not consider Tulsa as future home, nor wished to return it.”
The Kaiser system’s influence on Tulsa culture extends into the public’s management of the arts as well. Back in 2016, Tulsa voters had approved Vision Tulsa, a tax package that designated $2.25 million for use by the Arts Commission of the City of Tulsa, which beautifies the city with public art projects. In September 2019, Tulsa World insinuated that Councilor Phil Lakin had previously tried to funnel all 2.25 million taxpayer dollars into one of TCF’s component funds, Arts Alliance Tulsa [AAT], which offers grants to specific local arts organizations (one beneficiary is 108 Contemporary, whose board chair is Kaiser’s wife, Myra “Cookie” Block; Councilor Lakin was the original council chair for AAT). The city attorney quashed Councilor Lakin’s attempts, and he avoided serious scrutiny from the Ethics Advisory Committee (one member, Amanda Murphy, is a former VP at Gathering Place). On March 30, 2020, Ken Levit, head of GKFF and a board member of AAT, was appointed to serve on the city’s arts commission.
In a recent response to the pandemic, Councilor Lakin worked to get $300,000 in city funds approved for the Vision Arts Resilience and Recovery Program, meant to help local arts organizations with grants of up to $20,000. Applications for the grants will be screened by three AAT appointees, a member of the Economic Development Commission, among others, and ultimately approved by the Arts Commission. The $2.25 million earmarked for the city’s Arts Commission since 2016 remains undistributed.
The Battle for the Greenwood Narrative
In August of 2017, Tulsa World published a lengthy write-up about Kaiser’s influence in Tulsa. It outlined many of the system’s connections and intimated Kaiser’s people are prone to decision-making that works on behalf of their employer.
“Levit said the foundation doesn’t have a strategy to place people on boards,” the article stated, “but that the nature of the work likely attracts the type of person who would serve on boards. Kaiser also said it wasn’t a concerted effort on the part of the foundation.”
Not long ago, the Tulsa Community Foundation hired the former chairman of the Greenwood Cultural Center, Phil Armstrong, to work for the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. Levit and two other Kaiser employees are commission members, as well as Jeff Van Hanken, a GKFF spouse, and Julius Pegues, who sat on TCF’s board last year.
Last year, I was invited to participate in a private gathering with some individuals from the Centennial Commission. It was a meeting full of contention and concern, much of it pertaining to conflicts created by the Kaiser system’s heavy presence on the commission. Who would control the narrative of the 1921 massacre? It was the first time several of us had learned that $21 million had already been raised toward development in the Greenwood area. The commission sought fundraising help from TCF, which manages its donations and keeps them anonymous.
“To tell the story of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, investments must be made in its cultural center and surrounding landmarks,” Tulsa World wrote in an unsigned editorial, arguing for the development of the Centennial Commission’s project.
Recently, the Centennial Commission announced plans to build a “world-class history center” called Greenwood Rising, and it sought to do so using land occupied by the Greenwood Cultural Center. The Greenwood Cultural Center board complained that the lease required it to lose the name on the building as well as consolidate its facility with other organizations, ultimately weakening its role in the community. The Greenwood Cultural Center rejected the commission’s offers, tempering the hopes for Greenwood Rising. On April 27, 2020, the commission announced that another oil and gas philanthropy, the Hille Foundation, had donated nearby property they could use.
“Wow! I’m thrilled that the Commission was able to quickly find a new location for the Greenwood Rising History Center,” wrote Nehemiah Frank, the founder of The Black Wall Street Times, the most prominent blog focusing on Tulsa’s black community. The Black Wall Street Times website currently features advertisements for GKFF as well as Gathering Place. TCF/GKFF employee Suzanne Schreiber serves as its board treasurer, according to an application filed with Oklahoma’s Secretary of State last November. [Update: In a Facebook post, Frank (who had not responded to interview requests) disputed Schreiber’s role, saying that his company had decided not to pursue the non-profit status for which he had applied).
The Centennial Commission’s maneuverings, along with similar acts of secrecy and domination, have earned the Kaiser name a hostile reception in town hall meetings and other public gatherings in North Tulsa. Many people I interviewed told me they refuse to visit the Tulsa Arts District or Gathering Place because of the tensions.
“It was the first time several of us had learned that millions of dollars had already been raised toward development in the Greenwood area.”
In an effort to demonstrate a willingness to let the community “tell its own story” of the massacre, the Centennial Commission announced it would offer grants of up to $10,000 for Race Massacre commemoration projects. All one needs to do is fill out an application that is reviewed and either accepted or denied by the commission.
The Centennial Commission recently announced its support of a multimedia hip-hop project called Fire in Little Africa, which also enjoys support from the Bob Dylan Center and the Woody Guthrie Center, both of which are GKFF projects. Part of the project was recorded at Tate Brady’s Confederate mansion, now owned by retired NFL player Felix Jones.
“Folk is the music of the people and heritage, and Woody knew that the words were the most important part of his work,” Woody Guthrie Center Director Deana McCloud told Tulsa World. “Tulsa’s hip-hop artists follow that tradition as a new generation speaking truth to power.”
A Certain Reluctance
Not long ago, a prominent Tulsa figure approached me and asked me why I was daring to criticize Kaiser’s work. Don’t I know how much he has done for the black community? It’s a question I encountered several times during my research.
The most recent release of the Tulsa Equality Indicators report demonstrated that certain underprivileged Tulsans have shorter lives (by more than a decade) than wealthier Tulsans. GKFF and the City of Tulsa mounted a tremendous effort to “Narrow the Gap” in 2015; however, Indicators 40 and 41 in the report revealed that infant mortality rates worsened for black infants between 2018 and 2019, and life expectancy for retirees remained unchanged (mortality rates for cardiovascular disease did improve, however). Last year, results from the report triggered a tremendous grassroots movement to compel the City of Tulsa to establish an Office of Independent Monitoring, the purpose of which would have been to increase the accountability for use of force by Tulsa police. Mayor Bynum ultimately retracted the plan. Inequality is a koan that confounds both government and philanthropy.
Bynum has done far more than any other mayor to address Tulsa’s race problem. In the eyes of some, however, his efforts are complicated by his Kaiser connections. He is a former lobbyist for GKFF, his wife is employed at Frederic Dorwart Lawyers (which represents nearly all things Kaiser), and his grandfather was a longstanding board member of BOK (a lucrative position offered to key Oklahomans). The city itself is a customer of BOK’s banking services. Through his media representative, Bynum relayed that he visits with Kaiser a couple of times a year, and with Levit every other month. Bynum speaks to Lakin, a “total workhorse,” every other day.
Because Tulsa’s leadership is so heavily associated with Kaiser’s system through Lakin and Bynum, conflicts of interest inevitably arise. In an email, Bynum claimed to handle that dilemma by seeking guidance from the City’s Ethics Advisory Committee or by simply recusing himself outright.
The aforementioned August 2017 Tulsa World article conveyed Kaiser’s simple rationale for his scope of influence: “Government involvement is still ultimately necessary because private-sector resources are not adequate to scale any successful experiment,” Kaiser wrote in an email to the World.
The wealthy and powerful have long been able to use taxpayer money to fund social experiments — but usually there’s either a democratic process or a public process that tempers such ambitions. Fear surrounding Kaiser’s system discourages much of that public dialogue.
“Other stakeholders who spoke with the World declined to comment. There’s a certain reluctance to talk about the foundation and Kaiser outside the realm of praise,” Tulsa World acknowledged.
The relationship between Kaiser’s system and Tulsa’s governance can make you wonder whether the entities excessively rely on each other.
“Sometimes I seek out his [Kaiser’s] thoughts on particular issues that arise, especially in the economic development field,” Mayor Bynum relayed to me in an email. “He’s a brilliant man who wants the best for Tulsa, so I appreciate having him as a sounding board when the occasion merits such a discussion.”
Most downtown business owners are aware of how the Kaiser system has enriched life in Tulsa’s core; its ghostly downtown was resurrected and now pulses with events and commerce. I asked property owner Michael Sager, the founder of Tulsa’s Blue Dome District, what he thought about the Kaiser system’s presence.
“I think when you empower and launch a big program—I don’t think it’s a hundred percent perfect, and I don’t care if it’s Democrats, Republicans or George Kaiser,” Sager said.
“Do they [Kaiser’s employees] have excessive influence over the city government?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think the government is the government, and the people are the people, and that we elect our officials. I think there are dozens, if not hundreds of cities in America that have benefited from a powerful individual or company that has chosen to make their mark there and change it for the better. I believe Kaiser has done so in the most sensitive manner.”
Sager’s statements align with popular sentiment and reflect the messaging reinforced by thousands of articles and videos—but they aren’t benign. In a complex system, the character—good or bad—of a leader doesn’t necessarily correlate to the way their system behaves. Consider that Las Vegas has Sheldon Adelson, Omaha has Warren Buffett, and Wichita has Charles Koch. Each represents benevolent, problematic systems within their respective communities. Should those systems go unobserved and unquestioned?
Sager’s views invite another unsettling question: How did Americans become so comfortable with powerful, private interests influencing our cities?
Watching Oklahoma Watch
I remember first being impressed by the Kaiser system’s influence on Oklahoma media back in 2012 when stories about incarcerated women started appearing regularly through a non-profit media company, Oklahoma Watch, which creates media content that is freely distributed to dozens of publishers across the state. Within the span of a year, more than 45 stories about women in prison popped up in papers across the state. One article featured a story about Women In Recovery, GKFF’s program for aiding incarcerated women. There have been 54 mentions of the program in Oklahoma Watch since then.
That same year, Oklahoma Watch received a $185,000 contribution from the Tulsa Community Foundation. The director of Oklahoma Watch, at the time, was Renzi Stone, the CEO of Saxum (GKFF’s public relations firm). For a comparatively small donation to Oklahoma Watch, the Kaiser system was able to create substantial, consistent messaging to unwitting media consumers across the state.
In an online tax filing, Oklahoma Watch did not disclose its donors (amusingly, the file was named “Oklahoma-Watch-Form-2017-FINAL-MINUS-EXCESS-CONTRIBS-DONOR-NAMES.pdf). However, given that Phil Lakin was listed as the person who possesses the books and records for Oklahoma Watch, and that GKFF/TCF employee Suzanne Schreiber serves as a board director of Oklahoma Watch, you can draw a reasonable conclusion about where some of 2017’s $710,000 in contributions originated. The Oklahoma Watch website does list GKFF as a supporting organization, along with the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, among others.
According to Oklahoma Watch’s Editorial Independence Policy, you don’t need to worry about any untoward influence:
“We accept gifts, grants and sponsorships from individuals and organizations for the general support of our activities, but our news judgments are made independently and not on the basis of donor support.”
In separate phone interviews, board chair Joe Hight and editor David Fritze denied that Kaiser’s organizations had undue influence on Oklahoma Watch’s content. Hight also stated that, to his knowledge, it had never published a critical word about Kaiser, any of his organizations, or any stories involving Solyndra, a 2011 GKFF investment scandal which some Kaiser insiders dismiss as “fake news.” The absence of critical or investigative pieces, Fritze explained, is because those issues are outside Oklahoma Watch’s focus of coverage, which does not engage in opinion pieces, or he lacks the staffing for such a project. Fritze sent me a link to a Kansas City Star article republished by Oklahoma Watch that questions the efficacy of early childhood education in Oklahoma, the only one to do so on its site.
“When Hight and Fritz insisted that Oklahoma Watch was editorially independent, I believed them. From their perspective, it is.”
As part of its education coverage, Oklahoma Watch published “Gathering Place in 360 Video: The Long-Term Benefits of Play,” which cites the importance of Vitamin D via sun exposure, among other findings. The article coincided with the opening of Gathering Place. The post also features two wordless videos panning across various scenes of children playing in the park.
Both Fritze and Hight were unaware that funder names were missing from the donor tax form, stating it was just an accountant’s error, and updated the document with donor information which lists a donation of $235 thousand from GKFF in 2018. The subject of incarcerated women, Fritze said, continues to be an important issue of concern for them.
When Hight and Fritz insisted that Oklahoma Watch was editorially independent, I believed them. From their perspective, it is. I also believed that I ran an editorially independent publication. When I was the editor of a Tulsa-based magazine called This Land, we published a large photo of two incarcerated women on our back cover—a section of the publication we regarded as sacrosanct. That was in May 2013, right on the heels of Oklahoma Watch’s coverage. Even as the magazine’s editor, I was somehow persuaded to spotlight the issue, and unaware of myriad forces guiding my decisions.
The science of complex systems tells us there can be thousands of reasons why something happens — reasons beyond our control or understanding. Powerful complex systems have a way of humbling us by pointing out just how vulnerable we are to their influence.
The University of BOK Financial
Last year, the University of Tulsa [TU] went into tumult over a controversial plan called True Commitment, which cut back its liberal arts programs, among other areas. While professors, students, and other faculty were in an uproar over the changes, the architects of True Commitment insisted it was just good business.
I taught a journalism class at TU in 2017. Our class project involved researching Kaiser’s influence on TU, and students had a chance to see just how intertwined their university had become with Kaiser’s system. My students discovered:
- Steven Bradshaw, CEO of BOK, served on TU’s board of trustees.
- Fred Dorwart, head legal counsel for BOK, served as chair of TU’s board of trustees.
- Three BOK executives served on TU’s executive advisory committee.
- TU’s former president Gerard Clancy sat on BOK’s board of directors.
- TU interim president Janet Levit is married to GKFF’s Ken Levit, and GKFF is funded in part by BOK profits. GKFF will eventually control BOK, when it receives all of Kaiser’s shares.
At the time True Commitment rolled out, three of TU’s primary leaders — Clancy, Janet Levit, and Dorwart — personally benefitted (directly or indirectly) from their relationship to BOK. During their leadership, BOK became the sole trustee of the Chapman Charitable Trusts, TU’s billion-dollar endowment (prior trustee Sharon Bell was ousted in an action that resulted in a suit against BOK; BOK settled out of court). Each year, BOK receives millions of dollars to manage the endowment.
The connections infuriated TU professor Jacob Howland, who wrote an excoriation of Kaiser, enumerating the BOK/TU conflicts and accusing Kaiser of taking over the university.
True Commitment appeared legal. Ethically, it was bewildering. TU’s ethics policy allows its president to make any exceptions, demonstrating that TU’s ethical accountability mechanism is broken. Conflicts of interest like these reveal a recurring fallacy I’ve heard uttered by several Kaiser system employees. They believe that because their organizations are legally separate from one another, it excuses any decision-making made by the same people in different organizations. As employees or contractors of Kaiser’s system, though, they are incentivized to make decisions in the interest of the entire system.
“True Commitment appeared legal. Ethically, it was bewildering.”
From a complex systems standpoint, however, Kaiser is less intentional than Howland’s article alleged. The True Commitment plan catered to the militarization of the university by beefing up its multi-agency cybersecurity program, a government strategy unfolding at 14 other American universities. As major federal funds flow into the university and surrounding areas, BOK will be poised to participate in developments. Why wouldn’t TU’s leadership want to pave the way for a cybersecurity industry in Tulsa? Faced with the prospect of losing their arts and humanities programs at the expense of cybersecuritization, TU faculty responded to True Commitment by casting supermajority no-confidence votes on Clancy and Janet Levit.
In Spring of 2020, just as the pandemic was causing massive disruptions in America’s educational system, and wildflowers began blooming at the Gathering Place, TU’s True Commitment Plan mysteriously disappeared from its website. On April 4, Howland directed an open letter to Levit, asking her whether TU planned to continue with the plan. While his are relevant questions, the answers are complicated by the current economic crisis.
“In one survey this week, 57 percent of university presidents said they planned to lay off staff,” reported Financial Times. “Half said they would merge or eliminate some programmes, while 64 percent said that long-term financial viability was their most pressing issue. It’s very likely we are about to see the hollowing out of America’s university system.”
Just as with prior examples in the Kaiser system, the problems at TU demonstrate the patterns of centralized control and the domination of one group (BOK) through board participation in another (TU). Individuals believe their actions and decisions are independent but don’t recognize their own incentives. The system behaves independent of its parts.
Through their media representative, Gerard Clancy and Janet Levit respectfully declined to be interviewed. Fred Dorwart did not respond to requests for an interview.
Kaiser’s bank puts tremendous effort into its relationship with TU, while Kaiser’s foundations focus millions on Tulsa’s public schools. Over 500 children across three schools are part of the testing ground for a non-profit initiative called Tulsa Educare, whose mission is (this may sound familiar) to “break the cycle of poverty” using early childhood education programs. Although its current annual report and website omit any mention of its board of directors, as recently as 2017, Educare’s board consisted of Fred Dorwart, George Kaiser, Phil Frohlich (a GKFF & TCF board member), and GKFF’s education program officer, Annie Koppel Van Hanken. Dr. Deborah Gist, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools [TPS], also serves on the board and is married to a BOK executive.
“Individuals believe their actions and decisions are independent but don’t recognize their own incentives. The system behaves independent of its parts.”
Critics of Educare complain that it deepens inequality by allocating special services for Tulsa’s charter schools while leaving the majority of underprivileged children floundering without similar support. Parents routinely express aggravation and rage about school closures and other controversial decisions made by Gist before the TPS board. The aforementioned board member of Oklahoma Watch, Suzanne Schreiber, who is an employee of both GKFF and TCF, is also the vice president of the six-person TPS board (Another board member, Jenia Wester, also has ties to the Kaiser system).
In a recent TPS board meeting, amid a budgetary crisis, Superintendent Gist proposed to allocate $150,000 toward publicity that would benefit TPS charter schools, all paid for by a grant from an unmentioned donor. After a couple of board members aired concerns, the proposal passed, with an assurance of greater transparency next time.
Inside the System
In a 2010 pledge letter, Kaiser wrote, “We tend to direct our purposes… rather than scattering gifts.” In other words, his foundations give grants rather than gifts. When you direct your giving through a grant, you drastically reduce the decision-making opportunities of the recipient. You might eliminate guesswork, but along with that goes a great amount of uncertainty and possibility — the environment from which creativity springs. The subject you intended to edify becomes disempowered through fewer options.
When a gift is made, however, a transfer of decision-making occurs along with the material object. That’s why gifts can be so wonderful and empowering — you can do whatever you want with them. Directed giving works great in simple scenarios that do not require creativity but can fail the system it serves when the mission requires complexity and creativity (the Tulsa Artist Fellowship is an example of this sort of failure). Feeling handcuffed by directed giving happens to be one of the chief complaints among Kaiser insiders, none of whom agreed to speak to me on the record.
There’s an entire school of thought that discourages giving with the aim of control.
“Some people — including economists here at Stanford and elsewhere — are championing unconditional cash transfers as a mechanism for improving people’s lives in which there are no strings attached,” says Stanford scholar Rob Reich, author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better.
Every day, thousands of employees from Kaiser’s organizations are making tens of thousands of decisions, many of which affect public life in Tulsa. Those decisions are subject to the rules of stochastics, chaos theory, and complex systems science. Values and attributes emerge from those collective decisions, some positive and some harmful.
Different employees have told me that they believe they can do more from within Kaiser’s system than outside of it. I am not sure what “doing more” means, but that’s only half the story — the science of complex systems suggests that systems have a way of adapting you to them. Think of all the complex systems that you’re involved in — your job, your family, your school. As an insider of a system, you are incentivized to protect the system, to maximize its productivity, and to guard against its failure.
“Every day, thousands of employees from Kaiser’s organizations are making tens of thousands of decisions that affect public life in Tulsa.”
Consider another humbling truism about complex systems: if you’re inside the system, you can never fully know or understand it. That’s why we all seek outside views; they help us see our systems in a different light.
There will always be more board positions to acquire, more properties to buy, larger investments to consider, greater civic decisions to make, and bigger programs to launch. An obvious question arises: How much is enough? It was the question at the heart of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Powerbroker, which explained how New York City came to be ruled by a man who never held elected office. Left unanswered, the question “How much is enough?” can haunt you.
An elegant adage helps us deal with troublesome parts of complex systems: If a system of power cannot be justified by the will of the people, we are morally obligated to dismantle it. For those inside Kaiser’s system, such a moral obligation can be as simple as declining the invitation to join a board, or stepping down from one. It can mean insisting on gifts rather than grants. It can mean admitting that you don’t know how to help, or asking how you can help—rather than telling others how you’re going to help. It can mean empowering those who challenge you. As a Kaiser insider, you should be aware of the unusual privilege vested in you; each day you face a choice about how to use that privilege. How much is enough?
Outside the System
I don’t know much about Kaiser personally, but I believe he’s among the better of the world’s billionaires (you can decide whether you’re for or against billionaires). Few people wield that sort of wealth with such skill. The people I know in Kaiser’s system are bright, charming, and passionate about their work, which is important to so many. I believe what they are doing in Tulsa is one of the most unique social experiments happening in America today. I imagine that in their eyes, most of the things I’m writing appear shocking or misguided. Why would anyone critique a group of happy, idealistic professionals who are trying to do good in the world?
“Fear isn’t just a failure of Kaiser’s system — it’s a failure of our community. Our media have failed to offer critical reporting; our institutions have not safeguarded themselves against conflicts of interest”
The Kaiser system conceals, dominates, frightens, and harms even as it attempts to help. I suspect these fragilities are not intentional, but rather have more to do with inattention. I’d like to say that I know how to help Kaiser’s people create greater integrity between their organizations or resolve the paradoxes and conflicts. I don’t. But I do think it would help to address the fear that permeates the Kaiser system internally and externally.
Fear isn’t just a failure of Kaiser’s system — it’s a failure of our community. Our media have failed to offer critical reporting; our institutions have not safeguarded themselves against conflicts of interest; our citizenry has failed in its duty to dismantle inequality. All of these failures to hold Kaiser’s system accountable are a disservice to the good Kaiser has done. Kaiser’s system can become healthier through more sincere dialogue and constructive criticism. It’s going to take more than just a cup of coffee.
As a disclaimer, I’m an outsider of Kaiser’s system. Although I have met and talked privately with almost all the individuals mentioned in this article, I only know them as peers and not patrons. If you consider yourself an outsider too, I’d like to offer you a few thoughts about resolving the riddle of Kaiser’s system.
One of the underappreciated gifts of the Kaiser system is that it exposes so many of the city’s vulnerabilities, and reveals the importance of creating strong accountability systems. When I requested meeting minutes for the last two years from the city’s Ethics Advisory Committee, each file was only two pages long with only vague bits of information. The minutes from July 2019 contained this note:
“The Ethics Advisory Committee held a discussion on the statistical reporting and on the lack of requests for opinions forwarded to the Ethics Advisory Committee. There was consensus that many of the individuals who may benefit from opinions from the Ethics Advisory Committee do not know about the process.”
There are concrete actions Tulsans can take. You can campaign to democratize Tulsa’s boards and commissions—Tulsa mayors have long been known to prefer influential insiders. You can also lodge ethics complaints with the city, as well as with any board, public or private. When applicable, you can demand that certain board decisions be suspended until an impartial ethics policy is in place. You can also report your city officials for conflicts of interest to Tulsa’s city auditor, Cathy Carter, and of course, you can hold the auditor accountable.
If you’re ever faced with the dilemma of whether or not to accept funds from the Kaiser system, you can use the situation to help yourself and the system. Foundations need recipients in order to fulfill their missions. As the recipient of funds, you have power, too, which you can assert. You should insist on gifts over grants, you can request no-publicity giving, and you can ask to see complete, unredacted 990 tax forms to help you understand the system you’re relying on.
The Most American of American Cities
When the pandemic hit Tulsa in early March of 2020, Mayor Bynum began issuing social distancing protocols for the city. There was hardly a peep from the George Kaiser Family Foundation until March 20, when it suggested Tulsans donate to United Way. Kaiser later committed $10 million to coronavirus relief efforts. GKFF later followed up with initiatives through a program called Tulsa Responds.
“It’s unfortunate that private charity has to assume the role of primary safety net,” Kaiser told Forbes, “… because of the failure of government to perform its function.”
It was a peculiar complaint, given Kaiser’s previous statements about the reliance of philanthropy on government. Is the inverse true? Does philanthropy fail when it relies on the government to accomplish its goals?
Kaiser’s system creates questions about how we are governed and posits that philanthropy plays a major role in the answer. The brutal economics of the pandemic suggest we’re facing historic levels of poverty and all its disastrous consequences—the same social ills Kaiser’s people seek to relieve. Kaiser’s organizations might argue that they’re needed more than ever, and that could spell an even heavier hand of involvement in Tulsa’s future. At what point would it be too much? Philanthropy unrestrained becomes plutocracy with a smile.
What is clear is that Kaiser’s system will remain with us for a long while still (Kaiser, I’m told, expects his philanthropy to continue about a century past his death). That should raise concerns among Tulsans. Who will assume the center of control when Kaiser is gone, and how will they be prepared to direct such a system?
There’s a version of Tulsa promoted by its boosters. It sparkles with parks and museums and teems with peaceful, satisfied people. That narrative is reinforced by thousands of speeches, videos, and articles. It is seductive in its positivity. But because it contains virtually no criticality, no outside view, it rings disingenuous and mundane. When you listen to activists, artists, professors, and other disenfranchised people, however, a more authentic and human city appears. That Tulsa rejects obsequiousness and revolts against monoculturalism. It is vibrant, shadowy, and sometimes terrifying. It teems with stories of struggle and triumph.
Stories are extraordinary tools of power that are available to individuals as well as groups. Most forms of social power work by affecting people externally: A boss can encourage an employee to join a board, attend a meeting, or just be quiet. Individuals, however, carry within them the power of ideas, which work from the inside, through narratives. Stories transfer values and ideas into people’s lives, and ultimately into the complex systems that we negotiate daily, and that makes storytelling a profound responsibility. Our stories should be courageous, life-affirming, and liberating — not hateful, conspiratorial, or denigrating. Some stories are so uncomfortable that they shock us from our slumber, while others dull us into conformity. It is the responsibility of artists, journalists, ministers, and teachers to steward and support the stories that free us.
As we go about building the story of Tulsa together, let us have the courage to revise the stories that don’t work — stories of inequality, racism, and oppression. Let us envision a more equal and free Tulsa, a Tulsa—and ultimately an America—which we ourselves create.
“Power and Leadership: A Complex Systems Science Approach” by Yaneer Bar-Yam
How Complex Systems Fail by Richard I. Cook
The following documents contain information about distributions, salaries, revenues & losses, holdings, donors, recipients, and more.
Links pertaining to University of Tulsa and its endowment, the Chapman Charitable Trusts, managed by BOK Financial Corporation:
I’m a writer based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
This article unfolded over the course of 5 years and hundreds of hours of research, interviews, lectures, and conversations. No organization or individual funded this article, nor did I receive any gifts or remuneration related to it. I have also never applied for any grants nor requested any funding from any Kaiser-related organization, nor has any funding been offered to me.
You can direct questions and comments to me at email@example.com