Few foundations have managed such diverse interests as successfully as the Meadows Foundation.
The foundation was established in 1948 by Algur H. and Virginia Meadows with assets from General American Oil Company of Texas, founded by Meadows and, at one time, one of the country’s largest independent oil companies. The foundation has grown to a current value of more than $850 million. It has disbursed nearly $600 million to 2,400 grantees throughout the Lone Star State in fields as diverse as arts and culture, civic and public affairs, education, health, and human services. It also has a particular interest in public education (particularly early child development, enhanced reading skills, and teacher preparation), mental health, and the environment, focus areas that came out of a self-evaluation held in conjunction with the foundation’s 50th anniversary.
Yet this philanthropy remains very much a family affair. Eleven of the 15 trustees are Meadows family members, representing the seven branches of the grantor’s family (Meadows had six siblings). Each branch of the family has its own system for rotating members on and off the board, where they are joined by four “trusted advisors” representing the oil industry, banking, law, and civic leadership. The foundation’s president and CEO, Linda Evans, is Meadows’ great-niece. Board members actively participate in vetting and evaluating grantees, and the board’s grant review committee meets ten times a year to award grants.
While the foundation is active in identifying programs and areas for support, the majority of proposals come from the nonprofit community because it is believed that no one has a better idea of the needs of the people of Texas than those who are working to meet those needs every day. Board members review all grant applications and frequently ask staff to further research proposals. Meadows is very much a board-driven enterprise. Members are fully engaged in the due diligence of the grant-making process, and regular meetings allow the foundation to respond quickly as needs arise.
This past year, Meadows quickly swung into action to provide support for grantees serving the needs of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees who had been relocated to Houston, Dallas, and other parts of the state. The Foundation staff was also given paid leave to volunteer their time to work directly with evacuees in Dallas shelters, and was joined by several board members.
The foundation’s creativity allowed it, in 1981, to develop the Wilson Historic District, a neighborhood of stately Victorian buildings near downtown Dallas that was facing the bulldozer. All told, the foundation assembled 22 acres of historic properties and renovated 12 historic homes, several carriage houses, and other buildings which provide office space for nonprofit organizations. Tenants pay their own utilities but live rent-free in exchange for agreeing to improve their management efficiency and develop cooperative programs with other tenants. The foundation later supplemented the original purchases with the acquisition and restoration of a historic church that is the former home of the Saint James African Methodist Episcopal congregation, built the 15,000-square-foot Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, and provided land for the 38,000-square-foot Volunteer Center of North Texas and the city’s Latino Cultural Center. The area has become a national model for historic preservation and adaptive re-use for charitable purposes.
Residents of the Wilson District, like all Meadows grantees, set goals and evaluation measurements, which the foundation uses to monitor its own impact. They are also required to plan for self-sufficiency, since no grant is unlimited. But in the end, the foundation is most interested in lives touched and people helped. The Texas focus also helps to concentrate the foundation’s impact.
By charter the Meadows Foundation exists in perpetuity, and the family wouldn’t have it any other way. “No one can anticipate the needs of the future,” said foundation president Linda P. Evans. “We could never imagine that Texas would play host to 350,000 hurricane evacuees,” she says. “We could spend the foundation down, and do a lot of good meeting present one-time needs, but it’s important to us to know that we have the resources to meet both known and unanticipated future challenges,” she added. As for maintaining donor intent, Evans says that the active involvement of the extended Meadows family keeps the foundation on track. “They know what Al Meadows wanted, and they are committed to his vision. He wanted to share his resources with the people of Texas to improve their quality of life. We hope our actions continually meet his expectations,” Evans concluded.
Justin Torres is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.