“One of the unique things about America is that people are able to create wealth and they are able to direct that wealth and give it away in any way they want to,” says Linda Perryman Evans, the president and CEO of the Meadows Foundation. She lives with that legacy every day, passed on by Algur Meadows, her great uncle.
Al Meadows made his millions at the helm of General American Oil, a large independent oil and gas company. When he decided to give it away the way he wanted, he probably raised some eyebrows. Nothing went to his family. “He didn’t want to take away our incentive to make it on our own,” Evans said. “He was so grateful for his wealth from the oil business that he wanted to leave everything to the people of Texas.”
Instead, Meadows created the Meadows Foundation and arranged for his family members and trusted advisors to direct its disbursements. The foundation was set up to operate in perpetuity, a responsibility Evans calls a “privilege.” Since its creation in 1948, the foundation has grown its assets from $20 million to about $700 million.
The Meadows Foundation has become a major force in the non-profit sector in Texas. In 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, it gave away $25 million in grants to a variety of agencies operating in five areas: arts & culture, education, human services, health and the environment. Since its inception, it has given away $692 million to Texas charities.
Now, the Meadows Foundation is the only one left that serves the whole state. Other large foundations concentrate their giving in their metro areas, but statewide, “We’re kind of it,” said Evans.
Of the five service areas, the foundation has contributed most to human services “because there is so much need,” said Evans. “We believe communities at large should support the organizations with their annual funds and their smaller general donations. We should be coming in to expand programs and help build buildings.” Their giving has also become more strategic, Evans added. A survey of all the family members 21 or older revealed three areas worthy of special focus: the environment, public education and mental health. The foundation developed strategic plans for each of those areas, which now guide their grant making.
The environment, for example. “Water is so significant in the country and in Texas,” Evans said. “It took me a long time to fully realize what’s happing with water in our state.” The foundation funded the Meadows Center for Water & the Environment at Texas State University. The goal is for the center to come up with the best ways to conserve water. “We’re already overcommitted to our resources and soon, we won’t have anything left,” Evans said.
In the area of public education, the foundation concentrates on funding the larger school systems. “There’s 156,000 [students] in DISD, so you can’t not pay attention,” Evans said. Meadows set up a collaboration with about 30 other foundations to fund a program that gets children ready for school. “There’s recognition that nobody can do it all themselves and we have to work together,” Evans said.
Mental health gets attention because it is such a widespread problem, but it still has a stigma to it, Evans said. For the past year, Meadows has worked with consultants to investigate setting up a mental health policy institute for Texas. “It’s been overwhelming how many people feel we have to do this,” Evans said. “We’re setting this up as a neutral, non-partisan organization to look at the best solutions for mental health – the best treatments and how to access.”
The Meadows Foundation doesn’t limit itself to capital funding for projects. It responds to disasters with a $1 million fund that Evans can direct if the board can’t meet. It has given money for air conditioners during heat waves in San Antonio and Dallas, and contributed to the Red Cross so it could continue to provide help during the Bastrop fires in 2011. “We were in San Antonio when West happened,” said Evans, “and that morning I asked our program officers to call all of our partners – Red Cross, Texas Baptist Men – and we gave money to the fund for West which the Waco Foundation is administering.”
With so many areas of need, the demand for assistance can be overwhelming if you let it, Evans said. In education, billions of dollars have been spent “and still children aren’t ready for college,” she added. She said it’s critical to the future of the state to keep trying to find a solution. But she doesn’t think throwing money at a problem is the answer. “You have to teach people how to give,” she said. “Many people don’t understand because it’s hard to give away money responsibly.”
The foundation monitors its grantees by setting goals with them, then checking to see if the goals were met the next time a funding request comes up. If the goals haven’t been met, Evans says that doesn’t mean they won’t be funded again, because the foundation now has a better understanding of the grantee’s situation. If they’re having trouble, the foundation can probably help them, Evans said.
“You can’t put a Band-Aid to a problem that the community won’t support,” she asserted. “We tried saving the Dallas Ballet for many years, but the community wasn’t supporting it, so finally, it had to die. So did Camp Fire Girls, but if the community is not going to support it, we won’t be the only funder – we support things the community needs.”
Community support is one criterion the foundation uses when awarding grants. “We have to be careful with new organizations to make sure they have public support,” Evans said. Grantees are held to high standards through audits, whether they have any outstanding lawsuits, and a check of their assets.
Private foundations such as Meadows must give away five percent of their assets each year. But some of its money goes to operating programs, such as the Wilson District. That’s a 22-acre tract of land in Dallas just east of downtown, where Victorian-era houses were in a state of ruin. The foundation stepped in and refurbished the neighborhood into a center for nonprofits. The restored houses are now home to 36 different nonprofit agencies, including the Meadows Foundation itself.
Decisions about grants are handled by the foundation’s 15-member board, which is made up of a representative of each of the six existing branches of the Meadows family, who are descended from Al Meadows and his siblings, along with some outside members. Evans is part of the family’s third generation, and says the board must soon deal with the issue of rotating fourth-generation family members onto the board. Coordinating a board whose members increasingly live out of state has required a technological solution. Many have to videoconference to meetings. The board meets four times a year, and grants meetings are conducted monthly.
Evans says she hopes the foundation can contribute to solving some of society’s problems. She sees collaboration with other funders and the government as a way to tackle some issues. “Nobody can do it alone,” she said. She and other staff members volunteer at some of the organizations the foundation funds, like the Salvation Army and the food bank.
“There are not a lot of people who get to do something like this,” she concluded. “It’s a privilege.”
Jun 20, 2015 Comments Off on The State of the Nonprofit Sector
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