Forever a Unique Approach to Philanthropy: When American Honda Motor Co. Invested in Education, It Helped Create a School as Unique as Its Philanthropic Philosophy

Article excerpt

"So, just how long do you intend to support this school and professional development center in our county?" a Grand County, Colo., commissioner asked in 1992.

"Forever," replied Mak Itabashi and Tom Dean. They were speaking for American Honda Motor Co., which would go on to create the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo.

The noisy room quieted as the commissioners and audience let that message sink in. Forever is not the approach most private and corporate philanthropies take when funding projects. Certainly, no one can predict "forever," but Itabashi and Dean clearly signaled that Honda was intending to make a long-term commitment to Eagle Rock.

That commitment Honda made nearly 20 years ago continues today, as Eagle Rock School educates students who have not been successful in traditional schools. Its 96 students live on a campus in Estes Park and participate in an intense, interdisciplinary, and value-driven program. The year-round school operates with three trimesters, and admits and graduates students three times a year. Tuition, room and board, and living expenses are all free to the students.

The professional development center (PDC) hosts educators on issues of school reform, renewal, and reinvention. The PDC exports ideas, offers technical assistance, participates in national initiatives, conducts research, provides internships and fellowships, publishes books and journal articles, and offers teaching certification. The PDC was designed to offer a low-cost mostly immersion experience for adults, with students contributing to the learning of adults, visitors, and staff members. The whole school is a learning environment for students and adults, especially when adults "shadow" students to classes, meet with them or staff members, or hold their own professional learning activities in the community, sometimes inviting Eagle Rockers to attend.

By design, the school and professional development center are two symbiotic entities; the school would not exist without the professional development center and vice versa. Although Honda does not disclose the amount spent on Eagle Rock, the American Honda Education Corp. (AHEd) has provided 100% of the operating and capital expenses of the school since it opened. Eagle Rock is unique because Honda's approach to philanthropy is unique.

Honda principles

Like most large corporations, American Honda Motor Co. (AHM) has a philanthropic arm, its "corporate conscience," in the American Honda Foundation. It was established in 1984 to help commemorate AHM's 25th anniversary and has been an important component of the company's overall effort to be a good corporate citizen. The foundation supports youth education with a specific focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) projects as well as on the environment. The foundation has made more than 605 grants in 49 states, totaling nearly $30 million.

American Honda's interest in philanthropy began when the president of American Honda, Koichi Amemiya, called Itabashi and Dean to his cubicle in Torrance, Calif., in 1989 and told them to find out "what we can do to benefit America and Americans." Itabashi and Dean spent most of a year crisscrossing the country, holding conversations with almost everyone they met--from taxi drivers to policy makers, from classroom teachers to school, district, and state education administrators. When they returned to Torrance, they had two recommendations:

* Form a nonprofit subsidiary involve all AHM associates. In other words, don't support this endeavor as a short-term "project" through the foundation. Embed the new subsidiary within AHM and ensure its support "forever."

* Focus on education, particularly the education of students who have failed or been failed by the system. Learn how to educate them well and graduate them as significant contributors to the greater well-being of America. …