How the Foellinger Foundation Exemplifies Donor Intent 

A few weeks ago, I watched an outstanding film about the Foellinger family of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the outsized impact family members have had on that community. “An Influence for Good” begins with the emigration of the family from Prussia in 1836 and their journey to economic success. It then focuses on the life of Helene Foellinger, co-founder of the Foellinger Foundation, which supports nonprofit organizations in Allen County, Indiana, “that promote self-reliance and build community.”

Foellinger came to philanthropy through a career in journalism that began in 1936 with the unexpected death of her father, Oscar Foellinger, owner and publisher of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. Rather than selling the newspaper for $1 million, as her father advised before he died, Foellinger and her mother chose to keep the enterprise going with Foellinger, at age 25, the nation’s youngest publisher of a large daily newspaper. Her success over more than 40 years was evident when she sold Fort Wayne Newspapers, Inc. to Knight-Ridder in 1980 for $37 million.

In 1958, Foellinger and her mother Esther Foellinger founded the Foellinger Foundation whose interests were strictly geographic. All grants were to support causes in Allen County, Indiana, with nine out of ten going to early childhood, youth and family-development efforts, particularly for those most in need. Following Helene Foellinger’s death in 1987 and the settlement of her estate, the foundation’s assets jumped from $20 million to $70 million, and protecting donor intent was a high priority.

The first key to protecting donor intent at the Foellinger Foundation after Foellinger passed away was putting the right person in charge. Foellinger trusted Carl Rolfsen and indicated in writing that he should head the foundation. “For many years, he was the voice of donor intent,” notes Cheryl Taylor, former president of the foundation.

By 2000, however, Rolfsen and the board began to realize the need to document more formally the founders’ vision for future generations. Neither Helene nor Esther had left a written mission statement or detailed statement of intent, so Rolfsen and his board turned to speeches Helene had given on personal responsibility. Those “very much highlighted her personal philosophy,” says Taylor, “in articulating the difference between the individual’s role and the community’s role.” Rolfsen and his colleagues also developed safeguards for selecting future board members, ensuring that new board members understand the Foellingers’ intent, and requiring each of them to sign a statement affirming that intent. It’s an excellent model for foundations intending to exist in perpetuity.

The inspiring story of the Foellinger family and the foundation that bears their name – including a segment on donor intent – can be viewed here.

Note: Portions of this blog were first published in Philanthropy Roundtable’s most recent guidebook on donor intent “Protecting Your Legacy.”

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