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How the Wilson Foundation is shaking up Buffalo's philanthropy

The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation has quickly become Western New York's philanthropic powerhouse.

A $100 million grant announced Wednesday to create a signature waterfront park and connect regional trails was nearly as much as all the region’s top 20 foundations paid in grants in 2016.

The Wilson Foundation’s size is due to the amount of money Wilson set aside from the sale of the Buffalo Bills and his estate for philanthropic efforts. The foundation, based in Detroit, expects to give between $700 million to $1 billion in grants to Western New York over a 20-year period – an average of $35 million to $50 million a year.

But it’s also due to its charge: spend the money by January 2035 and shut down.

The Wilson Foundation’s spend-down philosophy puts it on pace to give out more grants than any other area foundation for years to come.

"I marvel at the impact John Oishei had on this community, so you can put whatever multiplier on what Mr. Wilson's impact will be," said Robert Gioia, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation.

"Generations will feel the impact of what he and his named successors will accomplish," Gioia said.

The Oishei Foundation, long one of the top foundations in Western New York, gave $15.6 million in grants in 2016. By comparison, the Wilson Foundation gave out $60 million that year.

"We think their mission and their latest contribution to Buffalo is phenomenal," said Kevin Aman, spokesman for the Rich Family Foundation, which gave $1.9 million in grants in 2016.

"It's really exciting, and we applaud Mary Wilson and the other trustees for the choices they are making."

Spend-down foundation

Most foundations operate as if they will always be around, and manage their assets accordingly to accommodate that long-term outlook.

The Wilson Foundation has a different philosophy.

As a spend-down philanthropy, it wants to make a major impact in a relatively short time before it goes away.

Fewer than 10 percent of U.S. family foundations are set up with expiration dates, according to a 2016 Trends in Family Philanthropy survey. But their ranks are growing.

Nearly 20 percent of the newest family foundations have chosen to operate that way, the survey found, compared to 3 percent of those founded before 1970.

"None of us are doing anything like that because very few of us are in a spend-down mode," said Thomas Lunt, a trustee for the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation.

The Wendt Foundation, Lunt said, annually gives away around $5 million in grants.

"We're trying to be around for the next 50 years providing grants for projects throughout the community," Lunt said. "We need to grow our assets at the same time we're granting money.

"They don't need to grow their assets; they need to give their assets away," he said about the Wilson Foundation.

Million-dollar grants

Million-dollar grants have been dispensed like Pez since the Wilson Foundation came onto the scene.

Some 34 were given out in the past 46 months, 13 of them for $3 million or more.

Other foundations gave out million-dollar grants, too, but nowhere near the number the Wilson Foundation has.

"There is nobody of that size in this area," Lunt said. "They are unique, and I think it's fortunate that Mr. Wilson chose Western New York to be a beneficiary. I'm sure lots of places would like it."

Among the million-dollar recipients are the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the renamed Explore & More – The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Children's Museum, which each received $6 million.

Wilson Foundation announces big grant for Explore & More

Others grants include $3 million to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, $2.5 million to Launch New York, $2 million to Say Yes Scholarships, $1.5 million to the Northland Workforce Training Center and $1 million to the Buffalo Rowing Scholastic Association.

But it's not just million-dollar grants: Hundreds of grants, many in the $10,000 to $25,000 range, along with many for hundreds of thousands have also been given out. Those grants have gone to small, grassroots and startup organizations as well as pillar institutions.

Towering impact 

The Wilson Foundation spent $60 million in 2016.

That was nearly triple the amount of grants given out by the next foundation, M&T Charitable Foundation for Greater Buffalo, which spent $22.7 million.

The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo paid out $16.2 million, which included legacy grants from the Wilson Foundation.

The Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies, which spent $11.1 million, and the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, which gave $9.5 million, followed.

The next 15 foundations ranged from $5.9 million to $892,000 in grant payments.

"When the Wilson Foundation was created, they became a major player in Detroit but not the only one," said Kyle Caldwell, executive director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"In Western New York, they doubled the size of philanthropy just with their creation," Caldwell said.

Tracy Sawicki, the Tower Foundation's executive director, said the Wilson Foundation has been a welcome addition to local philanthropy.

"They are thoughtful and strategic at how they make their investments in a community," Sawicki said. "They are using those dollars to leverage other dollars, and are filling a gap that perhaps government and individuals could not achieve."

That view is shared by Gioia of the Oishei Foundation.

"It's not only what they do but how they do it that has had such a significant impact on our community," Gioia said.

"I can't say enough about their willingness to work together, their continued interest in what others are doing and their ability to really listen."

Gioia said the foundation's use of data to help guide its thinking has also been a big benefit.

"They have commissioned several important and comprehensive studies that have benefited our work and others," Gioia said.

Community Foundation involvement

Part of the Wilson Foundation's strategy is to find sustainable partners who will carry on its legacy after it's packed up and gone.

The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo is one of those partners.

The Wilson Foundation has tapped into the Community Foundation's resources and local presence to permanently support organizations and endow newly created positions.

It has given the Buffalo foundation 21 grants totaling $29.4 million.

In one example, a $5 million grant administered through the Community Foundation for the "Built to Play" initiative is being used to create more play spaces and skate parks, and create signature playgrounds in Salamanca and Jamestown.

Wilson Foundation devotes $5 million to WNY for unconventional play spaces

In another, endowments in caregiving, youth sports and health care have been created through the partnership.

"I'm tremendously impressed in the process and the care they have taken, and the people they have hired and the trustees they brought together," said Betsy Constantine, the Community Foundation's executive vice president.

Jeff Littmann, the Wilson Foundation's board chairman, said the foundation is willing to take risks and reach high because it's what they believe Wilson would have wanted.

"If you worked for Ralph Wilson, and didn't push the envelope and didn't try, you weren't going to be on his good side," said Littmann, who was a treasurer for Wilson Enterprises and chief financial officer for the Buffalo Bills.

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