When researchers from the University of Pennsylvania announced they had used gene therapy to reverse blindness, the world took notice.
Good Morning America featured the breakthrough; headlines trumpeted it across the globe. The attention was well deserved. A surgeon at Penn’s Scheie Eye Institute had successfully treated three patients with genetic defects that cause blindness. He injected a genetically engineered virus beneath the retina, which carried a normal version of the defective gene. The new gene corrected the genetic defect, allowing the retinal cells to produce a protein that enables sight.
Patients who previously could only detect hand movements could now read lines on an eye chart. Even more importantly, they could now navigate an obstacle course that had once caused them to stumble. It was a medical breakthrough comparable to the first kidney or heart transplant.
“This is proof of the principle that you can transfer a gene and reverse blindness,” says Dr. Stuart Fine, professor and chair of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s the most dramatic breakthrough I’ve ever been associated with.” This remarkable advance was the result of many years of research funded by an array of donors. But Fine says that no philanthropic effort was more important to its success than the ongoing contributions from the F. M. Kirby Foundation, starting with a $5 million gift in 1991.
About one-third of the F. M. Kirby Foundation’s $30 million in annual contributions goes toward medical research, like the work at the University of Pennsylvania. Medical innovations take many years of trial and error, and the foundation takes pride in giving to promising research in its initial stages, well before the National Institutes of Health or commercial funding kicks in.
The F. M. Kirby Foundation is known for its loyalty over the long haul, a loyalty that in turn reflects its legacy. Five generations of the Kirby family have been involved in the foundation, which is designed to continue in perpetuity.
In 1884, the foundation’s founder, Fred Morgan Kirby, revolutionized retail sales by starting a chain of five-and-dime stores. The new stores introduced consumers to fixed-pricing, forever changing the way American consumers looked at merchandise—products were displayed with a fair and certain price, and arranged so they would sell themselves. In 1911, he merged his chain of 96 stores with Woolworths, and the conglomerate became a retail trendsetter across the nation. Fred M. Kirby served as a vice president of the new company, serving on its board of directors until 1938. He died in 1940.
Kirby always had a philanthropic mindset, and he established the F. M. Kirby Foundation in 1931 with $1 million. The foundation, based in Morristown, New Jersey, now boasts assets of over $500 million, despite having donated well over $400 million over the years. His grandson, F. M. Kirby II, has tirelessly led the foundation as president since 1967, during its most active period of growth.
The foundation’s consistency gives it an almost familial relationship with some of its longest-running grantees. Board members do not simply fund programs. They are encouraged to be intellectually curious and to take the time to appreciate and understand the work of their grantees.
For example, when Lafayette College was renovating its historic football field, Daniel Weiss, the school’s president, sat down with Fred M. Kirby II to review the design plans.
Weiss was fully aware of the Kirby family’s longstanding commitment to Lafayette College. Fred M. Kirby joined the school’s board in 1916. Seven members of the Kirby family have attended the school, and the foundation has given it more than $100 million over the tenure of a half-dozen college presidents. When Weiss met with Kirby to discuss the $23 million transformation of the football field, he knew that Kirby had studied the drawings carefully. But, to Weiss’ surprise, Kirby suggested changing the plans to bring the grandstands closer to the field.
The changes proposed by Kirby struck Weiss as expensive and unnecessary. The school redesigned the plans to incorporate Kirby’s advice—and, says Weiss, “he was so completely right.” The facility, he continues, “is the finest of its kind in the country. Everyone would say so. And one major reason is the way the stands relate to the field, just as Kirby had observed.” Weiss believes that the foundation’s partnership with Lafayette College is “one of the great stories in American education.” There is a sense of trust and mutual respect between the two institutions. “There’s a comfort level knowing the F. M. Kirby Foundation believes in Lafayette,” Weiss says. “They’re with us through thick and thin. Because of that, they’re able to push us to think of things we might otherwise not.”
S. Dillard Kirby, the current executive director and son of F. M. Kirby II, believes the foundation reflects his great-grandfather’s humility and his father’s initiative. The Kirby family crest and coat of arms feature the phrase facta non verba—“Deeds, not words”—and this family motto is constantly applied to the management of the foundation. The foundation strives to avoid micromanaging grantees. It provides input when sought, and has an active intellectual interest in the work it funds, but it avoids involvement in the details or governance of the organizations it supports. A small staff of six runs an efficient operation. Each member is a crucial part of a team. There is no communications department. The foundation does not promote its work.
(Indeed, Weiss points out that while various buildings on his campus bear the Kirby name, it is not at the request of the foundation. Many of Kirby’s gifts go without public recognition: the $10 million for Lafayette’s new football stadium, for example, and the decades of anonymous gifts for the college’s other programs.) All six of the foundation’s board members are family members: F. M. Kirby II, his wife (Walker), daughter (Alice Horton), sons (Dillard and Jeff), as well as a recently added 35-year-old niece (Laura Virkler), who represents the fifth generation to serve on the board. The family formally introduces younger members of the family to the foundation’s activities starting at age 25. “Clearly,” observes Dillard, “the intent of the founder was for the management of the foundation to pass down through generations as a family foundation.” The foundation’s board is not compensated. It meets quarterly and takes a three-tiered approach to giving. The first tier is dedicated to organizations that have been important to family members for generations—like Lafayette College and Lawrenceville School, and certain cultural organizations, churches, and hospitals. The second tier goes to social service programs, such as homeless shelters, human service organizations, and YMCAs. The foundation’s third tier is directed toward programs that produce results over the long term—like medical research, education, and public policy, including about 30 think tanks in Washington, D.C., that share the foundation’s philosophy of free enterprise and self-reliance.
About 70 percent of the F. M. Kirby Foundation’s annual grants go toward general operating support. One recipient of such grants is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Spencer Masloff, senior vice president of ISI, says he appreciates the grants toward operating expenses, rather than capital improvements or endowments, which are increasingly rare in today’s era of specialized giving. “That money is the lifeblood of ISI,” says Masloff. “It enables us to do the core program in the way that we find most effective and far-reaching.” Masloff is impressed with the foundation’s long view toward its donations. ISI’s mission is to train college students to appreciate America’s founding principles of liberty and free enterprise. The group has 60,000 members, and it is often impossible to tell whether its efforts are bearing fruit until a decade or two after its college students have finished the program. But, when ISI helps cultivate a promising young student, the results can be impressive.
Terrence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), says the F. M. Kirby Foundation’s long-term approach is particularly important, given his organization’s mission. CIR attorneys file strategic lawsuits in the hope that they will end up before the Supreme Court of the United States, where their resolution can set major precedents in favor of individual rights. But the process can take upwards of a decade, requiring patience and loyalty from donors. In the nonprofit’s 18-year existence, five cases have made it to the nation’s highest court.
Pell is certain of one thing: the F. M. Kirby Foundation “goes the extra mile” to understand why CIR selects one case over another. “They’re genuinely interested in this,” he emphasizes. Pell sends the board reports, similar to those he sends every donor, but the difference, he says, is that people from the Kirby Foundation pore over every page.
“Dillard calls me and we have a 45-minute conversation,” says Pell. “He goes through the financial statements and notices things.” But, he notes, the interest has never been controlling. Dillard is just deeply interested in how the organization works. “He’s not the kind of guy who sticks a template on every grantee,” says Pell. “He wants to see what we’re doing from our point of view.” Like father, like son, like founder, and, the Kirby family hopes, like many generations yet to come.
Marshall Allen is a journalist living in Las Vegas, Nevada.