In the opening chapters of his memoir, “Fifty Miles from Tomorrow,” lifelong Alaskan Willie Hensley recounts the challenges and pleasures of living a traditional Inupiat childhood north of the Arctic Circle in territorial Alaska. Winters on Kotzebue Sound are nine months long, the sun barely edges above the horizon, and the wind can lash so hard you cannot safely step outside. Life at minus forty degrees presented his community with unimaginable challenges. “Survival was our primary concern,” writes Hensley, describing the importance of mastering essential tasks such as building kayaks and sod homes, hunting for bearded seal, reading the thickness of icepack, and storing food months in advance. “We knew cooperative effort was imperative – only by working together could we survive.”
The lesson he shares of living the traditional way, that scarcity and challenge must be met with preparation and cooperation, is as true today as it was then, and this is the same lesson we ourselves applied to the works of Rasmuson Foundation in 2008. As we reflect on a year defined in no small part by systemic and tectonic economic upheaval, we also reflect on a year defined by advanced planning and cooperation.
In 2008 Rasmuson Foundation engaged in an assortment of forward-looking initiatives, projects that called out for methodical preparation with our partners. We focused on building resiliency, organizational advancement, encouraging individual philanthropy, and pre-development. We collaborated with others in the funding community to achieve our goals, and we engaged in advocacy where we believed we could help strengthen our communities. Only by working cooperatively will we succeed.
The $2.4 million Nonprofit Sector Health Insurance Initiative, unveiled in July by our partners at The Foraker Group, is a key example of our effort to help build resiliency. Rasmuson Foundation is supporting the initiative through early enrollment incentives and comprehensive health risk management enhancements, and we will pick up the tab for management and evaluation. The rising cost of health care jeopardizes nonprofits’ ability to deliver essential services and effectively recruit and retain talent. We are convinced that banding together with others can lower the cost of health care for uninsured and underinsured nonprofit employees.
Healthy, stable organizations are critical to Alaska. The Organizational Advancement Fund is designed to strengthen the effectiveness and impact of Alaska’s arts and culture organizations, and in 2008, over 30 grants of between $1,800 and $60,000 were awarded statewide to encourage sustainable operations and strong leadership. Examples of these grants include a $5,000 grant to the Denali Arts Council to facilitate a strategic planning retreat and a $60,000 grant to the Homer Council on the Arts to cover costs of comprehensive planning, organizational assessment and strategic planning. From Dillingham to Douglas and from Eagle to Eyak, we supported efforts in Alaska’s nonprofit sector to strengthen leadership and build long-term sustainability.
We spent a good deal of time in 2008 working in collaboration with partner organizations to encourage individual philanthropy in Alaska. Every state resident who filed online for their annual Permanent Fund Dividend could, for the first time ever, give to one or more of 330 Alaska charities through the PFD Charitable Contributions Program, also known as “Pick. Click. Give.” In its inaugural year, $545,000 was donated to Alaska’s nonprofits. Rasmuson Foundation led efforts to pass House Bill 166 (sponsored by State Representative Bill Thomas of Haines) which created this opportunity and committed $900,000 to cover the cost of implementation. This new charitable giving option for Alaskans was made possible through co-funding and collaborations with The Foraker Group, United Way of Anchorage, Mat-Su Health Foundation, ConocoPhillips Alaska, BP, and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
The Pre-Development Program exemplifies planning ahead and working cooperatively with funding partners. Together with the Denali Commission, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and The Foraker Group, we invited organizations to undergo a rigorous vetting process to ensure their capital project meets a documented community need, is appropriately sized and sustainable over the long-term, and has fully explored all options for collaboration and sharing of facilities. The original concept for a new Seward Community Library and Museum, for example, had a price tag of over $20 million. Once the community underwent the Pre-Development Program, they embraced a more efficient and sustainable $10.2 million facility. Conceiving solutions in a vacuum is not an option, especially when it comes to large projects in times of limited resources.
Rasmuson Foundation maintained its core support of Alaska nonprofits through our Tier 1 program. Grants under $25,000 for assets such as furnishings, buildings, audio and video equipment, books, medical equipment, technology, art supplies, sports equipment, musical instruments, vehicles and other such “bricks and mortar” items are a critical part of how we support community. To wit, 96 Tier 1 grants totaling over $2 million were awarded in 2008 to projects statewide ranging from a technology upgrade at Kotzebue’s Chukchi Consortium Library to exercise equipment for the Ketchikan Pioneers’ Home Foundation. Our Tier 1 program supported projects in small communities like Togiak and Kake, larger hub communities like Barrow and Kodiak, and in the population centers of Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks. When combined with programs such as the Individual Artist Awards and the Sabbatical Program, our small grant programs funded well over 130 organizations and individuals in their efforts to make our communities stronger.
Also in 2008, the Foundation awarded 55 Tier 2 grants totaling almost $13 million. Examples of such grants include $459,000 for completion of the interior build-out of an education center at Yuut Elitnaurviat – People’s Learning Center in Bethel; $467,000 to Mat-Valley Community Charities Agency for the purchase of a retail condominium to house The Treasure Loft thrift store; $200,000 to Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP) to convert an Anchorage apartment building into affordable housing units for low-income individuals with disabilities; $1.5 million to Safe Harbor Inn to purchase the Anchorage Ramada Inn and convert it into transitional housing for low-income persons; and $250,000 toward site development, including a feasibility study grant of $25,000 to Trailer Art Center’s MTS Gallery, all part of a multi-year commitment to revitalize the Anchorage neighborhood of Mountain View.
In total, the Foundation made 252 grant awards for a total of $22 million in 2008. For a complete list of all grant awards please click here.
Rasmuson Foundation has an endowment, structured and managed to benefit Alaska in perpetuity. Our endowment is comprised of diversified investments, many of which turned upside down late last year. As a result, our asset value on January 1, 2009 was $401 million, a drop of roughly 30 percent from a year earlier. For a private family philanthropy that funds grants on earnings from asset appreciation, it hit like a blast of minus forty degree wind. I spent my life working in and around the markets and never did I imagine the events of the final quarter of 2008 through the present. It’s a sobering reminder of how volatile investments can be. One might ask oneself whether the fundamentals of our economic system are in danger. I believe the answer is no, and I remain cautiously optimistic. However, it is likely never to be the same.
We will spend much of 2009 collaborating with public and private organizations and institutions to identify and support projects that help Alaska survive this economic downturn. In his memoir, Hensley time and again acknowledges the contributions of the people around him and the importance of working together. We couldn’t agree more. For 53 years, Rasmuson Foundation has been inspired, guided and sustained by the words of my father Elmer Rasmuson, “Helping others is an Alaska tradition.” I find it heartening how those words harmonize with Hensley’s description of the cooperative imperative of life in the Arctic: “Only by working together could we survive.” I’d like to think our greatest accomplishments at Rasmuson Foundation in 2008 were those where we worked together to help others.
Edward B. Rasmuson
June 3, 2009