Ohio has a long tradition of invention, from the Wright brothers to the inventors of the Frigidaire system. But by the 1970s many of its traditional industries had declined to “Rust Belt” status.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Building upon the successful screw machine company U.S. Automatic Corp., taken over by their father, Walter, in 1929, brothers Evan and Eric Nord realized by the 1940s that the economy was changing and that the family business would have to innovate to survive. In 1957 they changed the company name to Nordson Corp. They took a risk and turned the new organization into one of the chief producers of airless spray machines. That spirit of innovation is a hallmark of the company. Even today, as many of the state’s industrial businesses continue to fail, the Nord brothers and their successors have kept ahead of the curve, becoming a leading supplier of machines that apply industrial adhesives and coatings.
Eric and Evan brought this spirit of innovation to the Nord Family Foundation, which they launched in 1988. The brothers, however, were hardly novices. Walter and his wife, Virginia, had started the Nordson Foundation as a charitable trust in 1952. The family foundation was created in 1988 to split Nordson Foundation into two units—one that honors the giving of the company (Nordson Corporation Foundation) and one the giving of family members (Nord Family Foundation).
The family foundation funds in four geographic regions: Lorain County (the foundation’s home), Boston, Denver, and South Carolina. According to John Mullaney, the foundation’s executive director, Eric and Evan wanted the family foundation to distribute funds in whatever communities family members settled, though more than half the money should stay in Northeast Ohio.
Mullaney tells Philanthropy that the programs funded in regions outside Ohio are often “brought home to Lorain.” For example, the foundation, through its family in Boston, provided grants to the Center for Applied Technology in Massachusetts. The center was involved in finding ways to apply technology to improve the learning potential of special education children. One of its projects, Universal Design for Learning, is a computer program that delivers classroom material in real time to a variety of special-ed kids. So a child with autism and a child with Down Syndrome sharing the same class receive the same text information simultaneously, but at a level and speed each can understand. It doesn’t replace teachers, says Mullaney, but rather enables them to spend less time adapting materials and more time teaching. The foundation brought the program home to Ohio, and today the state superintendent of education wants to put it in the hands of each state district.
Through the projects it supports in education, arts and culture, civic affairs, and health and social services, the foundation strives to uphold its founders’ vision to “bring opportunity to the disadvantaged, strengthen the bond of families, and improve the quality of people’s lives.” To help maintain this vision even as the family itself expands numerically and geographically, it has conceived an unusual way to keep its members intimately involved in the foundation’s work while keeping its board size manageable.
The foundation is governed by its “members,” all of them family and currently numbering a little more than 40. They meet annually to discuss foundation business and to elect a much smaller board of trustees, now composed of nine foundation members and three trustees selected from civic leaders and the community at large. All foundation members have the opportunity at their annual meeting to provide input on the direction of the foundation, which the board collects, winnows, and refines in the process of grantmaking. Joseph Ignat, a member of the foundation and former president of the board, believes this system ensures the foundation will “keep the founders’ priorities very much in mind,” while the presence of civic leaders helps “bring important supplemental knowledge to the board.”
The foundation remains a close-knit family operation. Ignat’s wife, daughter, and sister-in-law are all board members, as is Eric Nord. (Evan passed away in 2004.) Evan and Eric created the foundation in 1988 in part to begin nurturing the next generation of givers, says Mullaney. “My job is to work closely with the family,” he adds. And while as in any family there are occasional disagreements, Mullaney is confident the family will not abandon the innovative spirit the Nord brothers nurtured.
“This family itself,” says Mullaney, “is an example of civic society.”
Martin A. Davis Jr. is senior editor and writer for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.