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Ralph Wilson Foundation announces $7 million in donations

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation announced $7 million in donations to Western New York endowments Tuesday, including $500,000 each to Hunter’s Hope and the Western New York Amateur Football Alliance, while also outlining a new philanthropic partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

The newest donations, part of a larger “legacy gift” funded through the Community Foundation, are consistent with the Wilson Foundation’s mission. That’s to help fund already proven not-for-profit groups that improve people’s quality of life, mostly in the Buffalo and Detroit areas.

But they also target the type of causes favored by Wilson, who died in March 2014 at age 95. The late Buffalo Bills owner had a soft spot for former players’ foundations, and he enjoyed supporting youth sports.

The Wilson Foundation will distribute about $1.2 billion in his name from the sale of the Bills, plus the investment income, over the next 20 years to medical research, amateur and youth sports, hospitals, former players’ foundations, national medical clinics and other nonprofit causes, primarily in his two hometowns, Buffalo and Detroit.

Hunter’s Hope, created in 1997 by former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and his wife, Jill, in honor of their son, Hunter, meets two of those criteria, as a former player’s passion and as a medical research vehicle. It’s dedicated to funding research to treat and cure Krabbe leukodystrophy, the disease that claimed their son’s life in 2005 at age 8; it also pushes hard for nationwide screening standards for Krabbe.

The Western New York Amateur Football Alliance seeks to create a safe environment of fair play and sportsmanship for young football players, according to its website. “The Alliance will keep the welfare of its participants free of any adult ambition or personal glory and will promote the ideals of youth sports regardless of race, religion, gender or national origin,” its website states.

In the last couple of months, the Wilson Foundation already has made a splash with announcements of more than $10 million in local donations: $4 million to University at Buffalo sports-medicine initiatives; $2 million to the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, for girls’ sports programs; and $4.2 million to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, for quality-of-life programs.

Starting Jan. 1, the foundation will be headed by David O. Egner, a key foundation leader in the Detroit area.

Since 1997, the 53-year-old Egner has served as president and chief executive officer of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, with assets of more than $174 million. At the same time, he also is executive director of the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a $100 million philanthropic partnership aiming to help southeast Michigan move to a more innovation-based economy, according to the Hudson-Webber website.

Egner now will head a foundation that Wilson intentionally left with no specific guidelines. He knew that times and needs change, and he had complete confidence that the four people he chose as foundation trustees would be guided by his own philanthropic efforts during his lifetime, his wife, Mary M. Wilson, has said.

“Ralph was a great visionary,” she told The Buffalo News in August. “He knew things changed, so he didn’t want to put us in a box. He believed in us, which is such a great honor for the four of us. He knew that we knew him, that we loved him and we knew what he had (supported) in the past.”

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation plans to give out all of its money over the next 20 years.

“Ralph had seen foundations go the wrong way, when the initial people running it were no longer running it,” Mary Wilson said in August. “This was the best way to assure that the people who knew him best would be lifetime trustees.”

She previously had said that her husband hoped the foundation’s work would have “a direct impact in the lifetimes of those who knew him best.”

The newest donations are expected to be unveiled at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in the Community Foundation office in the Larkin at Exchange building. Egner, the foundation’s new CEO, is expected to attend, along with Mary Wilson, the other three previously announced trustees and representatives of the Community Foundation, Hunter’s Hope and the amateur football alliance.