Edyth Bush, like many snowbirds, came to Florida for the balmy weather and the easygoing lifestyle. But she brought something else with her to Florida: a “Minnesota” style of philanthropy—low-key, careful, and above all tough-minded—that for nearly 40 years has been the hallmark of the foundation that bears her name.
“I think you can pick out things that are characteristic of Minnesota philanthropy,” says David Odahowski, himself a Minnesota native and the third president of the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation. (As a law student at Hamline University in St. Paul, Odahowski would study in the Bush Memorial Library, never knowing that he would one day be at the helm of the foundation established by the library’s donor.) “There’s a focus on being a good steward, a careful fiduciary of other people’s money.” Above all, he notes, Minnesota philanthropy prizes community—person-to-person connection and rootedness in a specific place, tempered by a fierce, flinty independent streak.
Edyth Bassler Bush
Edyth was born in Chicago to Sarah and Eugene Bassler. By the time she was 16 years old, she was already a successful actress, ballet dancer, and playwright. In 1919, she gave up the stage after marrying Archibald (“Archie”) Bush, who started his career 10 years earlier as a junior accountant at Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing, at a weekly salary of $11.55. The St. Paul–based manufacturer had already been through three bankruptcies, and the company was in such straits that, at times, Archie would be paid in company-issued scrip that local merchants would accept for food. In fact, so precarious were the company’s finances that employees were known to trade shares of the company’s stock at local bars: one share bought either a shot of whiskey or two bottles of beer.
Archie was not a drinker. Like his wife, he was a devout Baptist. They were hard workers who knew early poverty. They held on to Archie’s stock—collected in small batches for as little as 45¢ per share—as he eventually moved from the accounting department to sales. Decades later, Archie would become the chairman and largest individual shareholder of Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing, by then better known to the world as 3M. In 1953, the Bushes founded the Bush Foundation in St. Paul, which would receive the bulk of Archie’s estate after his death in 1966, estimated at more than $200 million. (“They have more money, but we have better weather,” says Odahowski jokingly.)
The Bushes first came to Winter Park, Florida, a fashionable retreat just north of Orlando, at the invitation of a fellow 3M executive. They soon bought a winter home there, and after Archie’s death, Edyth would relocate permanently to the Sunshine State. But they resisted the impulse of many snowbirds to retreat into gated communities and ignore the area around them. “The Bushes always felt like they needed to be leaders in whatever community they found themselves in,” says Odahowski. They soon became patrons of the arts in Winter Park and donors to Rollins College, the oldest institution of higher education in Florida, and to this day the foundation is the second-largest donor in the school’s history.
Edyth and Archie never had children—later, she would refer to the foundation as her “baby”—but her father died young and she served as a surrogate mother to her younger siblings. Partly out of this experience, Edyth had a lifelong interest in programs that support education and child development. Combining her interest in education with her love of the arts, she founded the Edyth Bush Little Theatre in St. Paul in 1941. Over the next three decades, until the theater was closed in 1975, more than 6,000 children would spend time at the theater and associated school of art to learn the craft of acting, as well as all the technical aspects of drama, such as stage management, lighting and design, and business management.
“She knew the importance of the arts in terms of personal fulfillment,” says Odahowski, “but she also wanted the Little Theater to focus on education and building skills as well.” Just after Edyth’s death, the foundation honored her love of the arts with a grant to establish the Edyth Bush Theatre in Orlando, which has grown into a top-flight regional venue for the performing arts.
Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation
Edyth Bush passed away in 1972, and her foundation opened its doors the following year. By that time, Florida had already commenced the explosive growth that would make it one of the nation’s most populous states, but there was “a barren landscape in terms of the nonprofit community,” says Odahowski. The foundation set about to build a strong network of nonprofits by making grants all over the state, focused on sustainability and networking. The first president of the foundation was instrumental in convening an annual meeting of donors throughout the state, an informal gathering where funders could network and swap ideas. (This meeting—funders would rotate responsibility for organizing it among themselves every few years—would eventually develop into the Florida Philanthropic Network, a collection of Florida-based philanthropies that convenes state and regional meetings for donors, conducts research, disseminates news, and advocates on behalf of the philanthropic community in Tallahassee and nationwide.) The foundation also helped to establish the Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership Center at Rollins College, which offers courses in nonprofit development and board governance, and where Odahowski served on the board of the Donors Forum, another network of Florida grantmakers.
In the early years, the foundation made grants all over the state, but as Florida’s nonprofit sector grew, the foundation began to limit its activities to programs within a 100-mile radius of its home in Winter Park. The foundation chose this distance, Odahowski says, on the theory that 100 miles was about the right distance to drive two hours, meet with a grantee or prospective grantee for four hours, and drive back another two—putting in a full day’s work while still maintaining the person-to-person connection that Minnesota philanthropy prizes. As other funders have been created in the state, the foundation gradually began to restrict its activities to a smaller and smaller region. It now limits its grants to the four counties surrounding Winter Park, to better facilitate its personal connection to the programs and nonprofits it funds.
This intense focus on just a few Florida counties places the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation far removed from its Minnesota roots. But, Odahowski notes, it permits the foundation to develop lasting, personal connections with the nonprofits it funds. “Technology is all the rage, and it makes foundations more efficient,” he says. “But it will never replace person-to-person contact. It will never replace the laying on of hands.”
Like any good Minnesota philanthropy, the foundation that Edyth Bush established has never viewed “relieving human suffering,” as the foundation’s mission statement puts it, as an enterprise for the soft-headed. “I’d describe them as very no-nonsense,” said Gary Landwirth, former head of an Orlando nonprofit called A Gift for Teaching, which collects unused and surplus supplies from local businesses, then distributes them through a free “store” to teachers to use in their classrooms. Landwirth approached the foundation in 1998 for seed money. Since 1998, it has distributed more than $50 million worth of pencils, crayons, notebooks, and other school supplies to underprivileged children in central Florida, along the way expanding into musical instruments, bikes and bike helmets, and other items.
The Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation has been a partner and funder since A Gift for Teaching began, eventually helping the organization hire its first development director and opening up doors to other funders and community leaders. But Landwirth notes that the foundation, at every stage of the organization’s growth, pressed him and his staff to justify, explain, and refine his plans and predictions. “They were very challenging at first, had a lot of questions, and really forced us to be professional about the way we budgeted our resources,” says Landwirth. “But once we got past the initial challenges, they really became partners for us—and more than that, advocates.”
The experience of up-by-the-bootstraps perseverance would leave its mark on Edyth Bush, and, through her, on the foundation that was established in her name. Most importantly, it finds expression in the foundation’s commitment to relieving poverty and helping the needy, not with handouts, but by focusing on hands-on projects that “help underprivileged or needy people to improve themselves”—a value enshrined in the foundation’s original mission statement and one that continues to guide its grantmaking. The foundation does not make operating grants and does not give to endowments, preferring hands-on projects that have a more entrepreneurial edge. It also does not give to any organization that receives 50 percent or more of its funding from the government. To the Bushes, living at a time of marginal tax rates that topped 90 percent, “government had already extracted a great deal from the entrepreneurs,” says Odahowski. While accepting the necessary role for government, they declined to support organizations that relied on such extraction.
Preserving Intent, Promoting Freedom
That same flinty, independent streak—so characteristic of Minnesota philanthropy—was much on display during one of the foundation’s most recent efforts. The Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation has been a leader in the effort to promote philanthropic freedom in the Sunshine State.
In December 2008, the Greenlining Institute issued a report on diversity and foundation grantmaking in Florida. To Odahowski, the paper looked suspiciously familiar. Greenlining, a Berkeley-based activist group, had released a similar report on California grantmakers in the fall of 2006. On the basis of its data, California legislators nearly passed AB 624, which would have required the state’s largest grantmakers to report on the race, gender, and ethnicity of their board, staff, and grantees.
“I remember the California assault on the liberty and inventiveness of its philanthropy,” says Odahowski. “California and Florida are often compared to one another, but once you get past the beautiful weather and our exquisite topography, the comparisons diverge. A Greenlining Institute effort would never be able to gain a beachhead here, or so I thought.”
Nevertheless, the appearance of the Greenlining report inspired Odahowski to think creatively. “The Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation has been a beneficiary of philanthropic freedom,” he says, “and we have worked to guard our autonomy and independence since our establishment in 1973. We are a guardian of donor intent and are responsible for the proper expenditure of monies that are not ours, but that have been entrusted to us.” How could the foundation preserve the autonomy it needed to fulfill its foundress’ mission?
Grantmakers and legislators from across the state—with support from the Alliance for Charitable Reform, a project of The Philanthropy Roundtable—began to see the need for prophylactic legislation. The result was SB 998, written to prevent government or state officials from imposing on foundations arbitrary standards with regard to governance and grantmaking decisions. The goal was to make Florida the most philanthropy-friendly state in the nation.
“I was more than happy to help with SB 998,” says Odahowski. “Florida could remain a friendly domicile for wealth and philanthropy, or it could start burdening generous citizens with regulation, eroding donor intent, and replacing the love of mankind with the love of government data collection. It was quite clear to me and to others that if government directed the ‘who, what, where, when, and how’ of grantmaking, then foundations would no longer be part of the independent sector. At that point, we ought to change our email addresses to .gov.”
Odahowski and the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation actively championed the idea. “I offered some edits and understanding of the Florida philanthropic landscape,” Odahowski explains. “I met with my own Representative—Dean Cannon, Speaker-Designate of next year’s legislature—as well as four or five others from the Florida House and Senate. I was prepared to testify on the subject matter of the legislation, but it turned out to be unnecessary.” SB 998 passed unanimously in both houses. Gov. Charlie Crist signed it into law (as part of a larger Trust Administration bill) on May 27, 2010.
“I never want to say that I know what Mrs. Bush would have wanted or said on a particular subject without some documentation or precedent,” says Odahowski. “I do know, however, that she and her husband believed in free enterprise and generosity. They helped create 3M, one of the most successful American multinational companies. They were joyful givers in their lives and they left a philanthropic legacy that reaches from the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’ to the ‘Sunshine State.’ Freedom to create wealth and freedom to be generous would therefore be in keeping with the wishes of our foundress—and her desire to help people help themselves.”
Contributing editor Justin Torres is an attorney in Washington, D.C.