A cold call changed everything. It was 1983 and I was new to the state with a big job as CEO of the Alaska Public Radio Network news organization. I wanted to strengthen financial support. The biggest bank with branches throughout Alaska seemed a good place to start.
Imagine my surprise when Ed Rasmuson, then-president of National Bank of Alaska (NBA), not only answered his own phone but agreed to meet that same day. He was incredibly accessible for someone so important. He was reasonable. He was open to counter views. And he appreciated boldness. After our first meeting, Ed bought $6,000 worth of NBA underwriting for Alaska News Nightly.
That open door and 15-minute meeting led to my role in building what Rasmuson Foundation has become. In 1995, Ed hired me with his dad’s thumbs-up to work as the Foundation’s first — and for years only — employee. From a solo administrator, we have grown to a team of 25. From a few hundred thousand dollars in grant awards a year, we now give away $20 million to $30 million. As the Foundation celebrates its 65th year, I mark my own 25th anniversary.
In the mid-1990s, then-small Rasmuson Foundation was still led by Elmer Rasmuson: Ed’s father, one of our founders, and former long-time chairman of National Bank of Alaska. I worked part-time to help the board evaluate grant requests. There were vacuum cleaners for the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, storage units for Iḷisaġvik College, a steamer oven for Bean’s Café. Each December, we decided the “yeses.”
As Elmer approached age 90, transformation was coming. He seemed able to predict the future or maybe he was designing it. Rasmuson Foundation, he said, should be “a meaningful part of the changing life in Alaska.” The family was preparing to sell its bank to Wells Fargo. Most of that wealth was going to the Foundation. To get ready for the overnight growth of Foundation assets, I went full time and in 2001 became president and CEO.
Our board asked itself who we wanted to be. Should we award small grants or large grants or both? Help for rural students to succeed in college? Expand professional theater? Should we join with other grantmakers? Who? Some of today’s close partners were on our early list.
We’ve embraced life-changing projects and initiatives: dental health in rural Alaska, sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders, elevation of artists with direct cash awards, strategies for others to give. Dearest to me are the small grants that make such a difference: new paint for a childcare program, a new computer for a literacy program, display cases for a cultural center.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic turned our world upside down. At the time of this publication, we are helping with emergency funds and convening leaders. As the nation grieves and protests the pain of incessant racial injustices, we examine our own actions and our own work. Even with our finances disrupted, we plan to remain strong for the next generations of Alaskans. The times may change, but we will be here forever.