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1973-1997: Reflections of Vision

Reflections of Vision

Lewis S. Eaton, Board Chairperson in 1973 wrote “The growth of this type of endowment is historically slow. Once it begins to flourish... its merit and potential become more and more evident.” True to history, the growth was slow; by 1973, the total fund balance stood at $63,742. Public interest in the Foundation was growing faster than the balance sheet. Indeed, the 1973 board of governors reads like a Who’s Who of Fresno at the time: Leon S. Peters, T. Newton Russell, Gerald Slater, Marilyn Brown, Lewis S. Eaton, Kendall L. Manock, O. J. Woodward, Lowell W. Firstenberger and Hilliard R. Giffen. The original board consisted of nine unpaid Fresno citizens. Board members could serve for two five-year terms and were appointed by the mayor of Fresno, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, the Fresno County Superior Court, the United Way of Fresno, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, the Junior League of Fresno, California State University, Fresno, The Fresno Art Center/Fresno Philharmonic, and the Trustee’s committee.

The board met as needed. The Foundation’s daily needs were managed by an executive director and an assistant staff member. FRF offices were usually in the building of one of its trustee banks. The Pacific Southwest Building, the Crocker Bank Building and the Guarantee Building were all home to the Foundation in those early years; often the offices were little more than closets. The donations were small and the operating budget was even smaller. Donors like Berven Carpets, Leon S. Peters and other board members kept the lights on and the staff paid but donations didn't allow for much else. During those first several years, the Foundation struggled to breathe on its own.

“The board and their billfolds kept the vision alive,” said Keith Baxter, Executive Director from 1972 to 1976. But that vision was fueled by a passion that started at the top and was admittedly infectious. “O. J. would call me every night with another new idea,” said Baxter.

While people were interested in the Foundation, the concept was new to the area. Historically, the local foundations were family-held; in fact, there were only about 250 community foundations across the nation at the time. The community foundation was intended to attract a person who wanted a perpetuation of funds instead of a one-time charity gift, explained Manock. While a charity gift might be given to an organization or project that might become obsolete or ineffective over time, the principal of a foundation gift was preserved, and the earned interest and dividends would provide support indefinitely. Additionally, the donor could get substantial tax benefits and could direct how the funds were to be used. A lot of small donations could be pooled together and collectively accomplish more for the community. It all made perfect sense-it would just take a little time to get the message out.

“Historically, a foundation usually had to wait to get the first big gift,” said O. James Woodward III, the son of O. J. Woodward. The idea was that once the first big gift came in, the credibility of the organization would rise and other philanthropic citizens would be more likely to contribute. But major gifts don’t happen overnight-people need a certain comfort level to give. It would take contributions of a few well-known citizens to raise the awareness of the Foundation’s work. Bob Miner, Executive Director from 1976 to 1991, (see sidebar story on next page) was known to say, “All we need is a million dollars. A million would make two million.”

Then, in 1977, it happened. Lewis S. Eaton, a friend of O. J. Woodward and a longtime supporter of Fresno cultural arts, became aware that the old Fresno Bee building at Van Ness and Calaveras was to be torn down. Built in 1922, the 85,000 square-foot building had been abandoned when the newspaper moved to new quarters, but the McClatchy family still owned it. Eaton convinced the family to donate it to the Foundation to be turned into a cultural center.

Thus, in 1977, the Foundation’s assets topped $1 million. The conversion of the McClatchy Bee Building into what would become the Fresno Metropolitan Museum got the Foundation some badly needed press, and with heavy-hitting philanthropists like McClatchy, Eaton, William Lyles, and J. Delbert Crummey behind the cause, word about the Foundation spread.

"Lyles, who served on the board from 1978 to 1988, said, “One of the things we learned was that we had to be perceived as a help instead of competition.” To do that, the Foundation needed to get the word out that it was a source of capital, a conduit for funds, and seed grant money for projects and organizations. It wasn't out to replace organizations like the United Way; rather it was designed to come alongside them and enhance their contributions to the community."

By 1984, the Foundation had seen more changes. Assets had dropped due to the re-gift of the Bee building to the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, which, ironically enough, was now where the Foundation had its office. Longtime board members had termed out after a maximum of ten years on the board; the board make-up was changing and getting younger. Donations were growing, albeit slowly. On the positive side, the 1984 financial report listed over 32 grants dispersed-a more than tenfold increase from the three that were dispersed in 1973. The Foundation was growing and showing some impact on Fresno community programs. Health programs, cultural programs, social and children’s programs as well as educational and religious programs all benefited from the Foundation’s work.

1984 was also the year a new face with an old name came to the board. O. James Woodward III, son of O.J. Woodward, stepped into the Chairman position. With a history of family philanthropy behind him, Woodward guided the board for four years, seeing Foundation assets nearly double from $520,781 to $981,447.

The early ‘90s saw yet another change in the Foundation-1992 was the first time women occupied the positions of Executive Director and Board Chairperson. As Bob Miner retired in 1991 after 15 years as Executive Director, Glee Ewell stepped in as the interim executive director. Ewell was followed by Annette Leifer in 1992. Leifer, together with Board Chairperson Chris Rogers, set in motion some changes to the way the Board did business.

Rogers revved up the board to meet every other month instead of annually in order to be more responsive to the changing needs of the Foundation and of the community. At the time the Foundation was still operating out of the office at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, “a closet, really,” said Rogers, “with enough room for two desks.”

Leifer would lay the groundwork for changing the way board members were chosen. Instead of being appointed by outside organizations, potential board members would be chosen and invited by a nominating committee of current board members. Invitations would be issued based on the individual’s expertise and commitment to the community. Board terms would also be limited to a maximum of two three-year terms.

Leifer saw the role of the Foundation among other things, as one of educator. “Our main job is getting people to think of charity. Frequently, people give generously during their life but they don’t leave money for charities. Partly that’s because they don’t know which group will stay around, or whether a charity will continue to be well-run, or change its direction. The Foundation can hold and invest the money and continuously seek out the organizations or programs that fit the purpose of the donor. To give money away intelligently is very hard,” she said.

Several major gifts came in during Leifer’s directorship including a $250,000 gift from Blue Cross and a $150,000 gift from the James Irvine Foundation. From the David and Lucile Packard Foundation came a gift whose sole purpose was to create an organization to help other non-profit organizations, the Non-Profit Advancement Center (NAC).

The NAC would allow the Foundation to play an important role in furthering the missions of nonprofits and helping them stay current with the changing needs of the community. Just as FRF was being helped by larger foundations, this was an opportunity for it to reach out to the smaller nonprofit entities in the region to help them with strategic planning and administrative issues. Bill Lyles likened it to reaching back to help pull up those behind you.

“The joy is in the creating, not in the having.”

All these gifts would help boost the Foundation’s assets from $1,330,546 in 1992 to $6,915,888 in 1995. During this time, FRF had caught the attention of a larger foundation. Seeing the overwhelming needs of Valley nonprofits, specifically those serving regional youth, the James Irvine Foundation donated $1.15 million to be used over a two-year period for the Fresno Youth Initiative in alignment with the NAC to help provide more and better services to the youth of Fresno.


Next: 1998-2000: Reflections of Inclusion


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