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Alumnus Profile: Gregg Behr MPP’00: Combining Philanthropy and Innovation in Education

October 31, 2016

By Susannah Roberson

This summer, Gregg Behr, MPP/JD’00, was stunned to find himself at the White House, attending an event as a guest of honor. Behr was being celebrated as one of 10 “Champions of Change for Making.” The category honors people who successfully promote hands-on learning and serve their communities through innovation and creativity.

“It was entirely unexpected,” Behr said. “It was affirming, it was special. It was a very sweet moment.”

So how did Behr find himself there? The recognition was due to his work as the executive director of the Grable Foundation and co-chair of the Remake Learning Council.. The award also recognized his support of the “maker movement” in the context of education.

Behr stepped into the executive position at Grable, a foundation based in Pittsburgh that supports childhood education and learning, in November 2006. Two years ago, he also started working with Remake Learning, a network of more than 250 museums, libraries, schools, early learning centers and out-of-school organizations that aims to introduce children to exciting new learning pathways.

Behr says any success he’s had ties back to his time at Duke.

“Professors at Duke prepared me for my life’s passion,” he said. “I’ve now been in the field of philanthropy for nearly 15 years as an executive, and that’s precisely because of the world-class preparation I got at Duke.”

Behr vividly remembers many formative classes at Sanford: a public policy and philanthropy class with Joel Fleishman, a politics class with Fritz Mayer, an ethics class with Noah Pickus. He also thoroughly enjoyed attending policy workshops with Helen Ladd and Bob Behn.

He wrote a master’s thesis about the extent to which members of Congress and their staffs relied on evidence and data concerning the nonprofit sector. His thesis advisor, Professor Charlie Clotfelter, also became a trusted mentor.

His list of influential professors doesn’t stop there.

“There’s not one course or one professor that I couldn’t name,” Behr said. “They all had a profound influence in different ways.”

Many of those mentors gave him advice about what would come next. Behr ultimately wanted to go into public service.. His mentors supported that, but they also encouraged Behr to have a long-term view, to be patient with his career and see the next years out of graduate school as apprenticeship training.

Behr’s first job out of Duke was with the Pittsburgh law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.. Two years later, he made the transition from law to philanthropy when he became the president of the Forbes Fund.

Those first few years at the law firm were remarkable years of apprenticeship-like professional training for Behr, and the chair of the firm became another close mentor.

When Behr started at the Grable Foundation, he had a solid understanding of the politics of education policy, but he didn’t, and still doesn’t, understand the depth of antagonism among people who otherwise should be united by a shared sensibility of social justice.

“If I have a frustration, it’s the unnecessary politicking and positioning that ultimately doesn’t serve kids well,” Behr said.

In his experience, it’s not just politicians who do this, but also school board members, the media, unions, faith-based organizations -- you name it.

What happens, Behr says, is you get a mix of people in a room together who would probably share, say, 89 percent of a common sensibility of what it means to do right by kids.

“Yet somehow, in the politicking and positioning, that very small percentage of difference gets amplified to a really unhealthy level,” Behr said. “People spend too much time and energy fighting in unproductive ways over that little difference, rather than focusing on what pulls us together.”

Despite those frustrations, Behr keeps his hope at high levels. He credits that to the caring people he witnesses doing great things every day.

“There are so many good people in this world, and you wouldn’t know it if you just read the newspapers or looked online or watched television,” Behr said. “That story gets so marginalized, and yet the reality is there are so many people doing good work, and I get a chance to see that and support that every day.”

His positive outlook on life also comes from time spent with his two young daughters.

“My most fun, laughing, silly moments are with my two little girls,” he said.

“Anything I do with them is fun--playing, cooking, building Legos, going to farmer's markets, and traveling.”

And Behr’s advice for a successful career?

“Whether you’re a student or a professional, you have to stay curious,” he said. “And being really curious means diving into knowledge you might not know a lot about. Or maybe you do know a lot about it. But you continuously read, discuss and attend events. You stay very present to the community, and really understand who people are and what they value and need.”