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Good to see Dalio back at it

When, along with members of the editorial board, I sat down with Barbara Dalio in early March, it was likely a first for me. I don't think I had ever interviewed a billionaire.

While their numbers are increasing, they remain exceedingly rare. CNBC recently estimated 630 billionaires live in the United States, representing .000194% of the population. Her husband, Ray Dalio, made their fortune as a hedge fund manager. Forbes estimates the net worth of the Greenwich couple at $17 billion, ranking 87th in the world. Not too shabby.

Barbara Dalio was visiting the board (before the pandemic hit and these in-person meetings ceased) to discuss the work of her private philanthropy, the Dalio Foundation. In particular, the public-private partnership that had been announced earlier with Gov. Ned Lamont. It was meant to target high school students at risk of dropping out and helping them get a degree and a job or a shot at post-secondary education. The foundation and state were each kicking in $100 million and trying to attract another $100 million from other charitable and philanthropic sources.

Dalio was remarkably unassuming. She did not reek of rich. If she had met me for a business lunch at a Chili’s Restaurant, she would not have looked out of place.

And Dalio struck me as absolutely sincere in wanting to give these young people opportunities.

While the goal was a worthwhile one, the details were undeveloped and Dalio wanted to develop them privately, at least to the extent her foundation thought was necessary. The legislation enabling the state’s participation in the partnership exempted it from the Freedom of Information Act. With $100 million in public money on the line, we could not support that and joined many others in demanding that the exemption be lifted.

Two months later the plan fell apart and the partnership was dissolved. Dalio, stung by criticism over a lack of transparency and troubled by news leaks, pointed to a “broken political system.” In normal times, it would have been an embarrassing outcome for Lamont, who had made a big deal of fostering such public-private partnerships. But in the midst of a pandemic, it came and went with the 24-hour news cycle, quickly forgotten.

I was glad to see, however, that the Dalio Foundation, through its Dalio Education fund, is still at it in Connecticut. At the end of July, it announced a new partnership, this time with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. The problem that the foundation now plans to tackle is the divide between those students with access to computers and high-speed internet and those poorer, and often minority students who lack such technology. The gap has been made clear by the need for remote learning during the COVID-19 outbreak.

During the announcement there was talk of finding “creative, collaborative solutions” with municipal leaders and providing examples for other communities, but details were again lacking.

However, a week later Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin announced a plan to provide citywide high-speed Wi-Fi, beginning in some of its poorest neighborhoods, with the Dalio Education and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving each investing $1.5 million for infrastructure.

Why the Dalio Foundation was so insistent on exemption from FOI was never well explained. Perhaps it was just a belief that it is harder to get things done under the glare of the public light. Philanthropy is a wonderful thing, but when it mingles with taxpayer dollars, scrutiny is necessary.

And as her foundation gives money to municipalities, trusting it will be effectively utilized to bridge that digital divide, Barbara Dalio may find out the bright sunshine of public accountability is not such an awful thing.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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