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The End of the Beginning

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The arrival of 2016 marks the 25th birthday of the Foundation. It aspires to a perpetual life and the end of the first 25 years is an important milestone. It is worthwhile to reflect on the first 25 years and what they have taught us.   

When the Foundation was formed in 1991 Ted Johnson, Sr. made an agreement with US Trust to manage its endowment for 5 years. He negotiated an excellent price and it seemed that the Foundation’s investment needs were well looked after.

However by 1995 it was apparent to the Investment/Finance Committee, led by Ted, Jr., that the Foundation would be better served by an independent fee for service advisor. Cambridge Associates was hired and the Foundation began its long run as a top quartile investor. It was helped along the way by the public offering of UPS shares, which almost doubled the Foundation’s endowment. We continue to employ the same investment system, which is still “best practice” for private Foundations.

Ted and Vivian, in their respective wills, prescribed “core” grant making that would dictate grant making on the first $60 million of the Foundation’s endowment. For much of the 1990s our endowment was under or around the $60 million mark and the Board had little discretion in Foundation grant making. This frustrated some of us at the time but the upside was that it gave us time to mature as an organization and to learn our business.

Proper governance is an incident of maturity as an organization. In 1998 the Foundation became a body corporate and in the following years it developed a committee structure and reporting system. Independent audit and compensation committees, timely production and distribution of committee minutes and the Monthly Report to Directors ensured oversight, transparency and accountability.

Grant making is not a natural talent. It takes knowledge, practice and experience to become an effective grant maker. In the early 2000s the Foundation developed a mission statement, settled upon its three categories of grant making and devised strategies for each. These steps seem simple to describe today but a lot of work accompanied each one.

The American Indian Task Force reviewed and reformed our programs serving Indigenous Peoples. This was followed by “DPAC” (Disabled Programs Advisory Committee) and then “Son of DPAC” (Disadvantaged). These committees got help and advice from specialized organizations and experts in their respective fields. The conclusions and recommendations of these committees gave shape and direction to Foundation grant making.

At this point, the beginning of 2016, we are no longer young or “green in judgment.” Our salad days are behind us. The Foundation is a mature organization with 25 years (and over $100 million) of grant making experience behind it. We are in the midst of the second wave of recruitment and retirement of the Foundation’s Directors.

What have we learned and how will that guide us and help us to be better in the next 25 years? I will be writing about that in February. In the meantime, I ask that each of you reflect on this question and let me have your thoughts.