Hatton W. Sumners once quipped, “many of us yet seem to feel that if we do a good job of criticizing the government, we have fully discharged our civic duty.”
Criticizing was not enough in Sumners’ eyes. From early in his career, says Hugh Akin, Sumners was “concerned about the growth of bureaucracies and the disconnect” between government and the people. Akin, executive director of the Hatton W. Sumners Foundation, says this former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (1931-1947) who served in Congress from 1912 until his retirement saw a great cause in “reminding people of their privilege and responsibility to participate in civic affairs.”
Even in retirement, Sumners did this by holding court, as it were, about democracy and civic responsibility with law students at the Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas. Before his death, he decided to make sure that future generations would also hear his message. He started a foundation in 1949 “for the study and teaching of the science of self-government.” Sumners endowed it by bequeathing his Ft. Worth dairy farm. The land was sold in the 1980s, and today the foundation has a $55 million endowment.
Among the pillars of the foundation’s grantmaking are the six endowed graduate and undergraduate scholarship programs that mainly serve students in the southwestern United States. The scholarships are not easy to obtain. They are merit-based, and recipients have to demonstrate not only academic excellence but also excellence as civic leaders. Additionally, the trustees have never knowingly awarded a scholarship to a candidate who has not exercised his right to vote.
Each year, students from Austin College and Texas Wesleyan University, to name just a few, apply for the scholarships through their institutions. Those selected by the schools to advance to the next round are then interviewed by the foundation’s trustees, who spend two months each year talking with candidates.
Those selected receive financial support, opportunities to intern in Washington, D.C., exposure to other foundation-supported programs, and access to a lecture series with featured guests such as Queen Noor of Jordan and ABC News reporter John Stossel. The foundation has awarded almost 700 scholarships since 1969, and in early June of this year it held the first Sumners Scholarship Alumni Conference.
“We view the alumni base as an asset that’s almost as important as the endowment,” says Akin. This year, almost 200 scholarship alumni were reacquainted with the foundation and Hatton Sumners’ mandate of civic participation. They were also educated about the foundation’s non-scholarship giving. Says Akin, “We wanted to show them programs they could participate in, or bring to their communities.”
One such program is New Mexico First! Started by the state’s two United States Senators, the non-partisan group organizes and hosts town-hall meetings across New Mexico to generate dialogue among the citizenry that will lead to public policy recommendations. Akin says it’s a “call to arms” that Sumners would have saluted.
Another recipient is the Arlington, Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute, which produces innovative social studies curriculum and teacher training programs for schools across the nation. The foundation funds the institute and uses it to enhance the quality of the Sumners Institutes on the Founding Documents, a long-running Texas teacher training program.
None of this would be a reality were it not for the board of trustees. They are “exceptionally active” according to Akin. “This is not a staff-driven foundation,” he says, telling Philanthropy there are three staff members to work with the very active 12-member board.
The trustees get involved in all areas of the foundation, from overseeing applications and monitoring current programs, to searching for new programs that fit the Sumners vision. “There isn’t a single trustee who’s not actively involved,” Akin says.
The payoff comes in the kind of alumni who received the Sumners Distinguished Public Service Award at the recent reunion. After graduating from Shriver University in 1991 with a scholarship from the Sumners Foundation, Ms. Sonia Munoz-Gill returned to her home near San Antonio and has served three terms on her city council.
Munoz-Gill and hundreds like her are following in the footsteps of a man whom the Saturday Evening Post referred to affectionately in 1941 as the “gentleman who does not yield.” She can do so because Sumners did not end his civic obligation by simply criticizing government, and because Akin and the foundation’s board ensure that Sumners’ vision is respected.
The Philanthropy Roundtable’s dedication to strong board oversight and a streamlined, efficient operation attracts Akin and the foundation. “Of all the gatherings of foundation people that I’ve attended I’ve felt most comfortable with the Roundtable.”