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Wilson Foundation to announce spending plans

It’s not exactly another Buffalo Billion.

But it’s a huge commitment to Western New York – worth maybe $400 million or more – earmarked for Buffalo-area colleges, health care institutions, cultural organizations, medical research and other not-for-profit causes over the next two decades.

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, bearing the name of the Buffalo Bills founder and longtime owner, is being funded with $1.2 billion from the team’s sale to Terry and Kim Pegula last October.

The foundation plans to spend that $1.2 billion, plus investment income, in grants over the next 20 years, with the proceeds “primarily” going to the Buffalo and Detroit areas, the foundation planned to announce Wednesday.

A smaller portion presumably will be targeted to national charities that Wilson and the Bills previously have supported, including foundations started by former Bills players.

Why will the whole trust be spent within 20 years?

“Ralph saw first hand the impact of his generosity in his lifetime,” stated his wife, Mary M. Wilson. Always thinking of others, he hoped the foundation’s work would have “a direct impact in the lifetimes of those who knew him best,” she added.

“This time frame was established so that the organization’s impact will be immediate, substantial and measurable,” the foundation stated in an email response to a question from The News.

Wilson, who lived and worked in Detroit, adopted Buffalo as his second home after founding the Bills before the 1960 season and keeping them here for 54 years before his death in March 2014 at age 95.

So Wilson’s long-term legacy here will have him remembered in two distinct roles – as founder and longtime Bills owner, then as a benefactor aiding schools, hospitals, medical research and other not-for-profit initiatives in his second hometown.

While there’s no way to pinpoint exactly how much money will come to Western New York, including Rochester, it clearly will be hundreds of millions, probably approaching half a billion dollars.

“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation will operate as a grant-making organization dedicated primarily to sustained investment in the quality of life of the people of Western New York and Southeastern Michigan,” according to the foundation’s latest mission statement.

Last December, foundation officials noted that Wilson also had commitments to some other charities nationwide, which the foundation expects to continue. But the commitment to Buffalo and Detroit will remain the key part of the overall funding.

That strongly suggests that both Western New York and the Detroit area probably will receive $400 million to $500 million each.

But foundation officials insist there is no set allocation between the two regions.

The last available figures for the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation – without the “Jr.” – showed assets of $4.79 million in late 2013. The new foundation’s assets of $1.2 billion will be 250 times the earlier amount.

That will make the foundation one of the largest in the nation, according to the foundation’s mission statement.

It takes a while to mobilize a $4.8 million operation into a $1.2 billion venture.

So the foundation’s long-term grant cycles won’t begin until 2016. In the meantime, the foundation started a Transitional Legacy Program for this year, intending to provide about $60 million in grants this year.

Those recipients already have been chosen but not publicly identified, and no other grant applications are being considered for 2015, the foundation announced.

Guidelines for applying for 2016 grants will be announced later, after the foundation selects its officers, including a president. That task will be overseen by the foundation’s four “life trustees”: Mrs. Wilson; Mary M. Owen, the owner’s niece and a former team executive; Jeffrey C. Littmann, former Bills treasurer and chief financial officer; and Eugene Driker, a Detroit-based attorney and longtime Wilson associate.

The foundation’s goal is pretty simple, to ensure that Ralph C. Wilson Jr.’s name will be identified as closely with his generosity as it was with his success in pro sports and business, the mission statement says.

“We expect the foundation to be a catalyst for the kind of transformative impact that was the hallmark of Ralph’s life,” the statement added.

Wilson’s generosity during his lifetime provides some valuable hints about the types of organizations that will receive grants, helping the four trustees identify the priority areas for funding.

“These priorities include healthy lifestyles, early childhood and youth development, caregivers, community development and economic growth,” the foundation’s news statement says.

During Wilson’s lifetime, his foundation provided $1 million grants each to several local institutions, including Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the University at Buffalo’s Department of Sports Medicine and the Kaleida Health Foundation.

Other local recipients have included Canisius College, SUNY Fredonia State and St. John Fisher College, the food banks of Buffalo and Rochester, the local United Way, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the Buffalo Zoo, the Cancer Wellness Center and the Hospice Foundation of WNY.

Wilson also established a medical research foundation in his name in 1999, supporting research at Roswell Park, the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and several Detroit-area groups.

And he never forgot his former players, especially when their own families’ medical crises led them to start their own foundations, including Hunter’s Hope, the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research and the Bob Chandler Foundation.


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