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Repairing the Washington Monument with private money

More than two years after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake damaged the Washington Monument, the U.S. National Park Service is readying to reopen it to tourists this spring.

“If you had a high-powered lens on your camera, or a set of binoculars to see up at the top, there were some very visible cracks,” says Brian Hall, a public information officer with the U.S. National Park Service.

Examining and, where needed, repairing the monument’s more than 30,000 stone pieces cost $15 million, but that work is being paid for in a novel way. The government split the tab with billionaire David Rubenstein.

“Increasingly, I think people should give money to things the federal government used to be able to do, but probably can’t do,” says Rubenstein, co-founder of The Carlyle Group, a private equity firm headquartered in Washington. He has given tens of millions of dollars to government institutions. 

According to Jim Ferris, who heads the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, the wealthy used to shy away from this kind of philanthropy, but that is starting to change.

“Increasingly, people see opportunities to actually work with government,” Ferris says, noting there is a federal task force to encourage agencies to partner with donors. “The extent to which we’re trying to engrain it, institutionalize it I think is new.”

Gene Tempel, the dean of the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, says there is a call for philanthropy to do more. During the most-recent government shutdown, hedge fund billionaire John Arnold and his wife, Laura, gave $10 million to Head Start, to keep it from closing.

Tempel says philanthropists like Rubenstein and the Arnolds are doing noble work, but he warns there could be a danger to this kind of giving: “That is the government can think that this is the way that it has to be done.”

Tempel says we’re not there yet. Indiana University keeps track of gifts worth a million dollars or more, and so far, Tempel says, less than one percent of those has gone to the government.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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