Beatrice Joyce Kean, the last surviving heir of the great lumber baron David Joyce, first established a rather humble family foundation in 1948. Modestly endowed, the Chicago-based foundation served mostly as a vehicle for her particular philanthropic projects, which usually distributed grants totaling less than $100,000 a year.
That changed upon her death in 1972, with her bequest of nearly $100 million—90 percent of the Joyce estate. By 1974, yearly grants rose to $500,000, and by 1976 they soared to $10 million. A professional staff was retained, the foundation’s mission was more clearly defined, and its charitable work began in earnest.
With an asset base today of $935 million, the Joyce Foundation devotes more than $45 million annually, through a diverse array of projects, to what foundation president Ellen S. Alberding describes as “the quality of life of everyday people in the Midwest,” one which “should include a clean environment, a good education, decent jobs, protection from violence, and access to rich cultural experiences.” The foundation pursues its goal chiefly through innovation. “A turtle never moves forward without sticking its neck out,” remarks Alberding. Taking risks with bold, original ideas and “accepting . . . the inevitable missteps that come with taking chances” ultimately prove far more rewarding.
Whether through the annual Joyce Awards, which provide $50,000 grants to commission new works by “artists of color,” or novel approaches to keeping guns off streets and violent crimes out of Midwest neighborhoods, the foundation has long prided itself on achieving concrete results through innovative ideas.
A strong commitment to protect and strengthen the Great Lakes ecosystem, so critical to the welfare of the land and people that the Joyce Foundation cherishes, has long formed a part of the foundation’s work, both through efforts of public policy and market-based solutions. “Some 40 million people depend on the lakes for drinking water,” says Joyce spokeswoman Mary O’Connell, “and regional industries including farming, manufacturing, shipping, and tourism depend on the lakes as well.”
The vast majority of the foundation’s environmental initiatives, which accounted for $16.4 million of its grants last year, seek to identify, and remove, some of the most noxious threats to the Great Lakes: invasive species, pesticide runoff from fields, and sewage overflows.
The foundation also plays a leadership role in seeking alternatives to conventional coal-fired generating plants. Recognizing that coal is an abundant domestic resource and the rapid expansion of coal-fired plants in the Midwest, the Joyce Foundation has invested heavily in groups promoting gasification and other clean coal technology. This technology offers the potential to reduce conventional emissions like particulates and noxious emissions as well as potentially reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Substantial investments are also being made in assessing carbon sequestration options and efficiency improvements.
The foundation’s work in education, which has assumed considerable emphasis in its grantmaking in recent years, is also based on innovation and a vision for a stronger Midwest. “It is not an exaggeration to suggest that our competitiveness in a global environment, our security, our democracy and our quality of life will depend in large part on the success of our education system,” Alberding says.
“We look for innovative, entrepreneurial efforts that promise to change policies within the major school districts” in Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee, says Gretchen Crosby Sims, the foundation’s education program manager. And these efforts, which last year amounted to more than $9.5 million of its giving, seek “to seed new models, whether they’re public charter schools, new models for collective bargaining agreements, or teacher support and compensation systems.”
The most significant education problem the foundation seeks to address is the lack of quality teachers in high-need schools, in accord with the foundation’s recognition that teachers are the “most important school-level influence on student achievement.” Toward that end, the foundation has awarded a $678,712 grant to The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of outstanding teachers. With the Joyce grant, TNTP will analyze bargaining contracts and hiring systems in Chicago and Milwaukee and identify changes that could attract and retain exceptional teachers for high-need schools. The foundation has also issued a $1 million grant to Education Trust, a nonprofit that seeks to close the achievement gap separating low-income and minority students from other youth. Joyce’s grant enabled Education Trust to develop strategies that will facilitate the distribution of excellent teachers to minority and low-income students in Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Foundation efforts have also included support for community-based preschool options; improving hiring and recruiting strategies for urban school teachers, including alternative routes for certification; fortifying principal leadership within schools by conferring more power to attract and keep the best possible teachers; and support for high-quality charter schools and small schools in Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee.
“We see charters as a promising, if not yet proven, venture,” explains Sims, “and at least in our home city, Chicago, they have a strong track record of performance.” They are, she says, “laboratories for reform” and “good alternatives for kids” who might be otherwise consigned to failing schools.
“An early start and good teachers can make all the difference in a child’s world,” Alberding concludes. Concrete accomplishments in this area, as with all the programs Joyce supports with innovative and original approaches to old problems, can mean a world of difference—for every child and for every condition, in the heartland which the Joyce Foundation calls home.
Jady Hsin is a graduate student at the University of Chicago.