Building mission on the bedrock of a donor s principles: The Daniels Fund

Once a foundation veers off course from a donor’s original intent, it’s rare to recover it fully. But that’s what happened on the Front Range of Colorado in the early 2000s, when trustees at the Daniels Fund led a systematic process to restore and protect grantmaking based on the donor’s core values.

Born in 1920 in Colorado, Bill Daniels grew up in New Mexico. Scrappy from an early age, he won two state Golden Gloves championships in high school and served as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot in both World War II and the Korean War. Daniels moved to Casper, Wyoming, in 1952. Intrigued by television and amazed by its growing popularity, he was dismayed that its signals could not reach mountain towns such as Casper. As a work-around, Daniels invested in coaxial cable and secured 4,000 subscribing households (about a third of the total homes in the area). His business took off from there. The cable television boom of the 1980s and 1990s made Daniels very wealthy.

Throughout his life, Daniels’ charitable giving ranged widely. He reached out to those down on their luck, those who abused alcohol and drugs, and those who suffered from mental and physical disabilities. He provided scholarships, with a focus less on academic achievement and more on demonstrated character and leadership potential. He funded efforts to integrate ethics into business schools, and created a bank meant to teach young people the principles of finance and personal responsibility. Through it all, his giving was largely personal: Daniels routinely enclosed a note with each check, explaining to the recipient what he hoped his money would do.

When Daniels passed away in 2000, his estate transferred to the Daniels Fund, making it one of the largest foundations in the nation. Even though he believed he had clearly codified his donor intent—delineating which geographic areas and causes he wished to support and which he didn’t, and even listing funding amounts for his favorites—he had failed to clarify the underlying values and principles that should guide the foundation’s giving. That omission, combined with professional staff whose worldviews differed from the donor’s, produced a culture unfriendly to Daniels’ original vision.

“They were really great people, but they didn’t know Bill,” notes Linda Childears, who was one of the Fund’s first seven board members and served as its president from 2005 to 2020. “They didn’t have his experiences and so they didn’t think like him.” This was typified in 2002 when a staff member turned down an application from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to fund an educational exhibit featuring World War II aircraft—on the grounds that it would be inappropriate to fund a project featuring “instruments of war.” When it was pointed out that Daniels had flown the same type of aircraft to defend the cause of freedom, the program officer still insisted that the request be declined.

That incident was “a wake-up call,” says John Saeman, a member of the board at the time who later served as chairman. “Suddenly the Daniels Fund was starting to look like someone else’s foundation,” summarizes Childears. Daniels’ original donor intent was being disregarded, prompting a majority of the board to intervene. The result was a five-year effort to ensure that Bill Daniels’ intentions and ideals would underpin the way the foundation conducted its business.

The first major step was to consolidate staffing by closing regional offices across the Mountain West, a step deemed necessary to prevent the Daniels Fund from becoming a behemoth with many heads. An analysis by Hank Brown, who became the fund’s president in 2003, also showed the organization was spending about 20 percent more on administrative overhead than its peer foundations, in large part due to the satellite offices.

Next came the codification of Daniels’ intent in writing. Directors pored over their founder’s letters and writings. They carefully studied his giving over the 25 years before he died and interviewed numerous associates to better understand his intentions. After careful deliberation, the directors defined grant areas, guidelines, and grantmaking parameters all anchored in Daniels’ words and deeds. They amended the foundation’s bylaws to include these new donor-intent documents—including ones that told Daniels’ story from beginning to end, creating a fuller profile of the man that left no doubt about his values and principles. Then the board stipulated that a 90 percent majority of the board would be required to amend the Daniels Fund’s giving parameters in the future.

Today, the Daniels Fund focuses on cornerstone grantmaking in areas closely in line with Bill Daniels’ wishes and history, including aid for the down and out, help for those addicted to drugs and alcohol, and scholarships to hundreds of students graduating from high schools in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming each year. The foundation could easily have taken a wholly different direction were it not for the intervention of alert trustees and loyal friends.