The year is 1898, before the Galveston Hurricane has swamped the Gulf Coast and irreparably changed the economic and cultural landscape of South Texas, before oil is discovered at Spindletop, and before the Houston Ship Channel has changed an inland crossroads into an international port. That year Jesse Jones, like hundreds of thousands since, arrived in Houston, Texas, to make his fortune.
Houston would be his home for the rest of his life. Through his business dealings, his political involvement, and the foundation he formed, Houston Endowment, he would help make it one of America’s biggest, boldest, fastest-growing cities. “Jesse and Mary Gibbs Jones were forward-looking and wanted to create strong civic institutions for the city they loved,” says Larry Faulkner, the Endowment’s president.
And love it they did. Jones first made his mark in construction. He built—among other landmarks—some of the city’s first skyscrapers, such as the 10-story Houston Chronicle Building and the Texas Company Building, home of Texaco. He acquired a half-interest in the Chronicle and continued to add hotels, theaters, and office buildings to his portfolio.
Jones was instrumental in raising half of the money for the construction of the Ship Channel (the federal government paid for the other half), which made the city one of the nation’s largest ports. He also helped bring the 1928 Democratic National Convention to Houston, the first presidential convention in the South since before the Civil War.
His public service was not limited to the Houston area. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson asked Jones to become director of military relief for the Red Cross. After the war, he stayed on to help mold the Red Cross—then a loose collection of local chapters—into the national charitable powerhouse it is today.
During the Depression, President Hoover asked Jones to serve on the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation; President Roosevelt later elevated him to the RFC’s chairmanship. Under Jones’s leadership, the RFC disbursed more than $50 billion (about $600 billion in today’s dollars) to bolster banks, save farms and businesses, prop up railroads, and electrify rural areas. Remarkably, every dime spent by the RFC was eventually returned to the U.S. Treasury, along with a $500 million profit.
In 1940, after Congress passed a special resolution allowing him to stay at the helm of the RFC while he served in an additional post, Jones was named Secretary of Commerce. He spent World War II mobilizing industry to support the war in Europe and the Pacific. Jones died in 1956.
Still, his heart was in Houston, where Jones and his wife Mary gave away more than $1 million during the early years of their marriage to civic institutions. They founded Houston Endowment in 1937 to formalize their giving. Originally, the Endowment owned many of Jones’s properties as well as the Chronicle, but after tax laws changed, the Endowment divested and added the proceeds to its corpus. Last year, it gave $65 million on assets of more than $1.5 billion.
The Endowment’s giving is focused on the Houston metro area, in seven areas: the arts, education, the environment, health, human services, and neighborhood development—areas that reflect historic interests, not necessarily directives, of the founder. Yet, Jones “was completely non-specific about the Endowment’s purpose,” says Faulkner. “I believe that his stance was rooted in his belief that the future was not very predictable and that every generation needed the latitude to set its own priorities.”
That is why the Endowment has funded a scholarship program since 1958 that helps prepare Houston-area students for an unknown future. In the past 48 years, the Endowment has given $62 million to more than 8,500 high school seniors. The Endowment also funds after school and summer programs that help young students succeed in school and prepare for college.
Established arts institutions, such as the Houston Symphony Society and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, are beneficiaries of the Endowment, as are upstart organizations such as the avant-garde theater troupe, Infernal Bridegroom Productions.
One of the Endowment’s most important features, according to Faulkner, is the close ties its grant officers have to the community. “We rely, field by field, on single grant officers who know what’s going on in particular fields, who know the grantees, and how the grantee fits into the ‘context’ of the community.”
Faulkner, who was named president of the Endowment this year after serving eight years as the president of the University of Texas at Austin, wants to supplement that personnel-focused system with a stronger focus on data collection and analysis. For instance, the Endowment is a leader in an effort to diagnose obstacles to academic success among community college students—who often face financial and cultural challenges in attending college—through a $9 million, five-year program involving all five Houston-area open admission colleges.
Still, the Endowment wants to maintain that staff-driven, “contextual” approach to grant making, even if it takes advantage of increased data analysis. “Houston is in the center of demographic change in the United States. We have all the issues that other major metropolitan areas do—problematic schools, neighborhood change, uninsured populations—with the added pressures of very fast growth and an unusually diverse population,” says Faulkner. Having grant officers “on the street” to assess the needs of civic institutions and they way they contribute to civic growth is essential to building the civic strength to which Jones dedicated the Endowment that bears his city’s name.
Justin Torres is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.