Taking the Ache Out of Bush Life
The people served by the Rasmuson Foundation are different. Many reside in very small and isolated towns. Transportation is often poor, weather frequently fierce. Because they are thinly scattered across the Union’s largest state, it can be difficult to provide philanthropic services to Alaskans.
But these challenges have always defined Rasmuson’s work, so the foundation has gotten good at coping. Founded in 1955 with an initial $3,000 gift from Jenny Rasmuson, the foundation was created in honor of Jenny’s husband “E. A.,” a Swedish immigrant who built the Bank of Alaska into a powerful financial enterprise. When son Elmer Rasmuson bequeathed the foundation much of his personal fortune of $400 million in 2000, the task became somewhat easier.
With assets of $465 million and annual grants in the range of $17 million, Rasmuson has disbursed more than $215 million across its state since 1955. The foundation has a hand in most recent philanthropy in Alaska, with particular attention to the small things that improve the quality of life for ordinary people. A prime example: dentistry. People with normal access to oral care forget how miserable life can become when a tooth erupts and a dentist is nowhere to be found.
In 2006, Rasmuson gave a $1 million grant to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to train special dental-health aides who will live in or fly into remote Alaskan villages. The aides provide preventive and palliative care, and improve the oral health of people living in areas that can’t keep a dentist in business. Rasmuson’s innovation has brought life-changing dental care to more than 35,000 rural Alaskans. Now other funders are looking at exporting the resoundingly successful program to sufferers in other places. —Karl Zinsmeister
A Royally Philanthropic School System
Bernice Pauahi Bishop was the last direct descendant of Hawaii’s King Kamehameha, her great-grandfather. She declined her right to rule and instead led a life devoted to religion and serving her fellow native Hawaiians through philanthropy. When she and her husband died, they willed most of their fortune to found the Kamehameha Schools, where children “of pure or part aboriginal blood” could get a superb education. Having witnessed the rapid decline of the islands’ Polynesian population, Bishop judged education and faith to be the best ways to preserve the people and culture she loved.
The 375,000 acres of ancestral land she gave as an endowment (about 9 percent of Hawaii’s total land mass) supported the creation of a system of private schools that now educate 6,900 students of Hawaiian ancestry at 31 preschool sites and K-12 schools spread across three islands. Scholarships also support college education of additional students. And 40,000 Hawaiians benefit from community literacy and other outreach programs that are also run by the Kamehameha Schools.
The schools still own 365,000 acres of land, most of it in agricultural use. These plus cash investments allow much of the schools’ expenses to be paid out of the endowment left by the Bishops. Thus it is that one of the very largest American school systems fueled and directed by private philanthropy is located six time zones from Manhattan, Washington, or Boston. —Karl Zinsmeister
A Personal Book Adviser
“Libraries are going through a revolution,” says Lisa Arnold. The digitization of books has forced libraries to rethink how they serve the public. If you don’t need to leave the comfort of your home in order to get a book in the future, what will you get out of going to a library?
As manager of the library program of the Paul G. Allen Foundation, Arnold and colleagues have been trying to help libraries “find ways to meet at the crossroads between tradition and innovation.” The foundation, whose namesake started Microsoft with Bill Gates, is currently funding projects in its home region aimed at making libraries more relevant in the Internet age. These range from creating smartphone apps that rural residents can use to access library collections to an experiment that allows readers to connect themselves with librarians who have similar reading interests. The latter will allow patrons to e-mail, call, chat, or meet with like-minded librarians for purposes of sharing book histories and recommendations.
Paul Allen’s father was the associate director of the University of Washington’s library, so “Paul and his sister Jody Allen grew up with an incredible love of books,” Arnold notes. Since 1990, their foundation has made $26 million worth of gifts to libraries throughout the Pacific northwest region. The new readers’ advisory service is an example of their efforts to find “unique approaches for strengthening the personal connections between patrons and librarians” that may eventually serve as models for libraries around the nation. Meanwhile, residents of the northwest already have new buddies for helping them make informed reading picks. —Naomi Schaefer Riley
A Forester Sprouts Research
Edmund Hayes owned small woodlands and sawmills in Oregon, and was a leader in finding newly efficient and effective ways to manage timberlands. He eventually became a board member of Weyerhaeuser lumber company. In the first half of the twentieth century, he started purchasing cut forestland and second-growth timber. “We Grow Trees” was his company motto at a time when re-growth was thought to be nature’s responsibility. By the end of Hayes’s career, planting trees after cutting timber had become routine, and loggers were learning to profit from second-growth cuttings on land that they would often own themselves and manage to maximize multiple uses. Today, forestry science has gone even further in finding new value and efficiencies in woodlands management, including selective logging and overlapping uses of the same land.
During his lifetime, Hayes was one of the more generous philanthropists in Oregon, supporting forest-fire prevention efforts, studies of early Oregon history, medical research, libraries, and churches. After his death, his family endowed a Hayes professorship at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry that continues today to generate fresh ideas on “silviculture alternatives.” The latest Hayes professor is using insights from the new field of complexity science to better understand the confluences of hundreds of factors that allow a forest to thrive and produce timber, wildlife habitat, clean water, and other valuable goods. Believing that “Oregon will always need diverse and productive forests and the wood products that come from them,” the Hayes family donors have emphasized the same mix of practicality and bold new ideas that characterized the philanthropic and business career of their father. —Karl Zinsmeister
There are few institutions that generate more affection in the hearts of donors than excellent small colleges. And no college in America is smaller, nor really more excellent, than Deep Springs, an idiosyncratic place nestled a mile above sea level in the California high desert bordered by the White and Inyo mountain ranges. At any one time, Deep Springs is home to two dozen of the most academically qualified young men in America, who are attracted by its offer of two years of intense academic study, hard ranch work for 20 hours per week, and practical lessons in self-governance—all 100 percent free. Its graduates usually go on to complete their degrees at America’s most prestigious universities, and more than half of all attendees have ended up with doctoral degrees.
All this is precisely as Lucien Nunn intended. Nunn pioneered long-distance transmission of alternating electrical current, then made his fortune building power plants for mines across the American west. As he expanded his operations, he felt a keen need for hard-working, skilled men of independence and integrity. In response, as one part of his philanthropic plans, Nunn purchased Deep Springs Ranch and set up a school there that melds esoteric book learning, practical work, self-governance, and a dose of desert spirituality. (“The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice; and God speaks through its personality and voice. Great leaders in all ages…have sought the desert and heard its voice,” wrote Nunn. “But you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things.”)
Today, however, Nunn’s vision is being questioned. Deep Springs is one of only four remaining men’s liberal-arts colleges in the country, and the trustees recently decided to go co-ed. Arguments are flying back and forth: On the one hand, Nunn invested the Deep Springs student body as “true owners” of the college and its properties, and the student body supports co-education. On the other, in legal documents Nunn expressly stated that Deep Springs was “for the education of…promising young men.”
Dissenting trustees challenged the vote to accept female students starting in the fall of 2013, and an injunction has so far prevented Deep Springs from going co-ed.
While the parties continue to sort it out in court, the dissenting trustees remain convinced that Nunn’s donor intent was for Deep Springs to remain all-male and that their job as trustees is to protect that intent. “Neither trustees nor courts have the authority to change or ignore a trust provision simply because they think it isn’t optimal or preferable, even if the preference is based on their passionate moral beliefs,” trustee Kinch Hoekstra told The Atlantic.
“The great thing about the legal protection of charitable trusts over time,” argues Hoekstra, “is that we don’t all have a bunch of institutions in 2013 that are wholly determined by what trustees happen to think in 2013. That would lead to an appalling homogenization of our cultural, social, and educational landscape. Instead, people set up different projects in 1880, or 1938, or 1972, and those visions, sometimes gloriously out of step with how we currently think and sometimes maddeningly so, may continue to thrive.” —Evan Sparks
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