My father, Elmer Rasmuson, noted in a 1993 speech that “we live in a changing world.” Indeed, Rasmuson Foundation is in the business of change — specifically the type of change leading toward increased opportunity and a better quality of life for Alaskans. But, just as consistently as we seek to foster change, the Foundation is also subject to it.
Navigating the first 60 Years In 1955 the Foundation made its first grant: $125 for a movie projector to support a church youth group’s recreation program. And, up until the mid 1990s, grants were small and usually for office equipment, musical instruments, vehicles, furniture, and other capital items. Today’s Tier 1 program harkens back to the Foundation’s beginnings.
Change was inevitable as the Foundation’s assets jumped from $8.7 million in 1999 to $428.2 million in 2002. The Tier 2 program – grants over $25,000 – was introduced in 2000, followed by expanded grantmaking and professional staff to manage it. This era saw the emergence of significant initiatives, among them the Arts and Culture Initiative, the Sabbatical Program and the Oral Health Initiative. The Foundation found active partners in the public sector resulting in the construction of clinics, libraries and community buildings across the state.
Now we find ourselves on the cusp of a new era. Our state legislators are wrestling with a significant deficit that threatens Alaska’s quality of life. Federal grant dollars have all but dried up. The Denali Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have fewer funds to invest in Alaska; and earmarks were falling out of favor even before the death of Senator Ted Stevens. Alaska has been very reliant on corporate philanthropy, which, as businesses respond to changes within the economy, is anything but predictable. In short, fewer public or private dollars are available to support the large community facilities of the past.
Throughout these transitions, what has not changed is Rasmuson Foundation’s focus and our philosophy. My father and my grandmother, Jenny, envisioned a perpetual source of philanthropic support for our state, and our asset management strategy is aligned to achieve the founders’ goals. The Foundation experienced another strong year for endowment performance in 2014 and closed with assets valued at approximately $650 million. Continued careful stewardship enables the Foundation to develop multi-year programs to address systemic social issues while continuing our ongoing grantmaking programs.
Last year the Foundation committed $35 million through grants awarded in 57 communities and through initiatives that have a statewide, and sometimes national reach (see attached list).
Planning for the future Today the Foundation – in collaboration with partners – is increasingly targeting systemic social change. For example, it has been long recognized that many grant dollars go to alleviate suffering caused by the overconsumption of alcohol. In answer to this issue, Recover Alaska, a multi-sector initiative to reduce the negative impacts of excessive use of alcohol in our state, was formed.
Similarly, the shortage of housing units across Alaska has reached crisis levels. Whether in Bethel, Juneau, Kodiak, Anchorage or any Alaska community, the imbalance between supply and demand for all types of housing results in price inflation, lower quality of life, homelessness and stymied economic prospects. The Foundation stepped up its efforts to address the housing crisis through the Housing Initiative. In the past 10 years the Foundation has invested $21 million to help build or renovate more than 1,200 units of low income, senior, accessible and transitional housing. Still, we are just scratching the surface.
Alaska is no longer the state that gives the least. Bill and Katie Corbus will affect tremendous positive change through their $48 million gift to the Juneau Community Foundation. Around the state, 54,000 donations were made in early 2015 using Pick.Click.Give. And, at year end, the nine local funds supported through the Community Asset Building Initiative held permanent community assets valued at nearly $4.5 million. The growth in private philanthropy aimed at sustaining nonprofit services could not come at a more important time.
Alaska’s great challenge After almost 40 years of prosperity from North Slope oil, it’s time for Alaska to realistically plan for the next 40 years. If we don’t act now to develop a workable, sustainable, nonpartisan fiscal plan, we face a financial cliff that will diminish all Alaskans’ standard of living. Doing nothing to fix this situation is irresponsible. A large part of Rasmuson Foundation’s work for the next year will be leading a statewide campaign to talk with Alaskans about the urgency for a long-term fiscal plan. Our goal is to inspire a mandate from the public for elected officials to make the tough choices that are required. We’ve already taken the first step. Rasmuson Foundation released a white paper with four elements we believe must be part of the solution:
• Further cuts to the general operating budget.
• A broad tax on all Alaska residents, workers and/or visitors.
• Use of excess Permanent Fund earnings.
• Refining current oil production tax credit programs.
The Rasmuson family has been in Alaska for more than 100 years, and Rasmuson Foundation for 60. We are compelled to continue navigating change to achieve our mission of “promoting a better life for Alaskans.” In the 1993 speech quoted above, Dad also said, “Both the optimist and the pessimist get to the same ending, but the optimist has a lot more happiness in getting there. It is a great attribute that most Alaskans are optimists.” That Alaska optimism drives our relationship with change – to face it, embrace it, and, sometimes, to instigate it.