Established by the late owner of the NFL's Buffalo Bills with more than a billion dollars in assets, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation plans to spend those assets down, with a focus on western New York state and southeastern Michigan, by 2035.
David Egner was appointed president and CEO of the foundation in 2015, having served prior to that as president and CEO of the Detroit-based Hudson Webber Foundation. A fixture in Michigan philanthropy for decades, first as an executive assistant to longtime W.K. Kellogg Foundation CEO Russ Mawby, then as director of the Michigan Nonprofit Association and executive director of the New Economy Initiative, Egner is using his extensive knowledge, experience, and connections to make the Detroit and Buffalo metro region better places to live and work.
PND recently spoke with Egner about Ralph Wilson and his vision for the foundation and the two regions he loved and called home.
Philanthropy News Digest: Who was Ralph C. Wilson? And what was his connection to Buffalo and southeastern Michigan, the two regions on which the foundation focuses most of its giving?
David Egner: Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. was a tremendously successful businessman and the beloved founder and former owner of the National Football League's Buffalo Bills.
The four life trustees he appointed to lead the foundation decided to focus its giving in the Detroit and Buffalo regions — southeastern Michigan and western New York — where Mr. Wilson spent most of his life and was the most emotionally invested. He had called metro Detroit home since he was two, and Buffalo became a second home after 1959 through his ownership of the Bills.
But above all, he's remembered for being a lover of people and of everyday difference makers. We want the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation to be a testament to his spirit, and that ethos helps guide who we are, what we do, and how we help shape communities.
PND: Why did Mr. Wilson, who lived to be 95, decide to structure the foundation as a limited lifespan foundation?
DE: It was a very personal decision. First and foremost, it was born out of his desire to have an impact on everything he touched. Doing so ensures that the foundation’s work will be completed within the lifetimes of the people who knew him best, our four life trustees, and that its impact will be immediate, substantial, and measurable.
PND: The foundation is in the process of ramping up its annual grantmaking to $100 million or more. What are some of the challenges you've faced in going from a modestly sized regional foundation to a pretty large foundation with a lot of money to grant out over a limited lifespan?
DE: A major challenge we face as an organization is determining where we fit in the philanthropic marketplace. Given our somewhat unique life cycle, we're focused on identifying how we can add value, fill gaps, and exit gracefully.
Our team knows that philanthropy is an inherently collaborative endeavor. And we strive to operate within the values identified by our trustees as defined by Mr. Wilson — innovation, collaboration, and focus on outcomes.
That's why we’re so committed to working as a partner with local organizations and funders that have already been doing important work in Detroit and Buffalo. We want to support and work with organizations that are aligned with our key program areas. We can direct resources to initiatives, help them scale ideas and programs that are already working well, help them surface new ideas and approaches, and, hopefully, together have a lasting, sustained impact in both regions.
PND: Earlier this year, the foundation announced the launch of an afterschool initiative that is designed to boost the number of girls and students of color with an interest in STEM fields. How did you land on STEM education? What will success look like for that program? And how will you measure it?
DE: One of our interest areas is to help young adults and working families succeed in the workforce. As technology continues to advance, it is important that all communities have the opportunities and tools necessary for success when entering the workforce.
STEM education is a pillar of that focus. To prepare the next generation for the workforce, we not only need to close the gaps in STEM knowledge, we need to close the gaps that keep underrepresented youth from pursuing an interest in STEM subjects. Afterschool STEM programs also help build teamwork, problem solving, and communication skills, which are the kinds of skills that our fast-changing economy increasingly requires.
In the short-term, success will be measured by the quality and variety of the programs in the two regions, as well as the number of kids participating. Ultimately, success will be measured by job readiness and the employability of kids graduating from those programs. We likely will be measuring that in the latter stages of our lifespan.
PND: What are you and your colleagues doing to ensure that the foundation has a lasting impact in Detroit and Buffalo?
DE: Our team has had an ongoing dialogue about that. We're less than four years into our twenty-year lifespan, but the topic of how we exit and ensure that the work continues is always top of mind.
Mr. Wilson gave us a tremendous opportunity in setting up the foundation as he did. Because of its limited lifespan, there's an ever-present urgency to act, to "throw the ball," as he used to say. As a team, we have to balance that urgency with data and thoughtful partnerships.
We're hopeful that the scans and studies we have and are conducting will influence others to address the challenges and opportunities we’ve identified, now and as we exit different program areas. We are really focused on empowering key organizations and building sustainable leadership in each of those areas, and it's likely we will endow a number of initiatives toward the end of our lifespan. But, ultimately, it will be the empowerment of community leaders and the creation of a shared vision of progress that will determine whether we were successful.
— Matt Sinclair