The late Ralph C. Wilson Jr. made a multimillion-dollar philanthropic commitment to Western New York but never specified how to spend the money.
He left it to others to figure out based on their knowledge of the kind of man he was and the legacy he wanted to leave.
Today, we know.
The foundation bearing the name of the Buffalo Bills founder and longtime owner announced that it is ready to accept applications for grants and unveiled where it wants to use $1.2 billion Wilson set aside for charity from the team’s sale to Terry and Kim Pegula.
Organizations can start applying Monday through the foundation website at www.rcwjrf.org. The foundation chose four core funding areas that parallel Wilson’s philanthropic interests over the years. They are:
• Children and youth, with an emphasis on programs beyond traditional kindergarten through 12th-grade education and including a focus on early childhood initiatives, sports and youth development programs, and after-school programs.
• Young adults and working-class families, such as skills training and education that can lead to good-paying jobs and increased independence, given the heavy demands and limited resources of many individuals and families.
• Caregiving, with an initial focus on skills training and respite for paid and volunteer caregivers for older adults and seniors.
• Healthy communities, including support of spaces and programs that support healthy living, improving nonprofit organization productivity and innovation, and economic development initiatives to spur regional growth, innovation and equity.
To help decide what those core areas would be, the Wilson foundation contracted with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which sought to gain consensus about Wilson’s values in interviews with the four “life trustees.” They are Mary, his wife; 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.
“Once we arrived at a consensus of what Mr. Wilson’s values were, we looked at what we should focus on,” said David Egner, president and chief executive officer of the foundation.
What sets the foundation apart from many other charitable organizations is Wilson’s desire that the money be spent over 20 years. He wanted the people who knew him and his values to oversee the distribution of the money, Egner said.
The decision also likely increases the chances that the funding and its impact will be immediate, substantial and measureable.
“Ralph was a great visionary,” Mary M. Wilson told The Buffalo News in 2015. “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.”
While planning for the future, foundation officials by invitation in 2015 and 2016 provided funds for legacy grants and “shovel-ready” projects in Western New York and Southeast Michigan. Legacy grants equaled $60 million in 2015.
Egner said he anticipates the foundation will announce the first recipients of the open application process in early 2017, but it remains unclear how many grants and how much money the foundation will spend next year.
“Right now, we’re operating in a transition stage and learning. But we picture a bell-shaped curve in funding over the years,” he said.
The foundation is working with partner organizations to commission studies in areas of interest to help inform investment strategies. For instance, a “field scan” is under way on youth sports in Southeast Michigan and Western New York, and on early childhood in this region, as well. Plans are to release the results publicly when they are ready in 2017.
“With the last several months focused on planning, hiring and developing operating policies and grant guidelines, we’re excited to be open for business and accepting applications,” Egner said. “We have a great executive team now in place who have already hit the ground running exploring opportunities for investment and collaboration in both communities.”
Wilson’s foundation was generous while he was alive. With his death in 2014 at 95, he earmarked his major bequest primarily for the regions around Buffalo and Detroit, where he lived and worked.
It’s likely the endowment will grow with investment proceeds, and plans call for splitting the funds evenly between the two communities over 20 years.