Diane Kaplan takes a spin in 2016 at Silver Salmon Camp, a retreat across Cook Inlet. (Photo by Sven Haakanson)
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You show up for a new job and find:

No office

No staff

No public phone number

No website

No email address

But to Diane Kaplan, Rasmuson Foundation offered a welcome addition to her consulting business and the job as part-time administrator, interesting new work.

The Rasmusons were a third-generation Alaska family who made their money in banking and investments. Family matriarch Jenny Rasmuson created the Foundation in 1955 to honor her late husband, E.A. Rasmuson. In 1995, when her son and grandson hired Kaplan as its first and only employee, the Foundation had $5.8 million in assets and awarded some $300,000 a year in grants. Manageable on a part-time basis.

In 1999, everything changed.

In February, on his 90th birthday, Elmer Rasmuson donated $40 million to the Foundation. Clearly, a part-time “administrator” was no longer enough.

With Elmer’s concurrence, his son Ed Rasmuson asked Diane to take on running the Foundation full-time. “It meant closing down the consulting business I had built — not an easy decision,” Kaplan said. In December 2000, Elmer Rasmuson died, leaving the Foundation $400 million. Ten months later, Kaplan was named full-time president and CEO of what is now the largest private funder in Alaska.

Kaplan will depart the Foundation in 2023, leaving behind an organization that grants $25 to $30 million annually to nonprofits, cities, tribes and individuals. Through her curative involvement in public issues, her organizing acumen and ability to bring people together, and her willingness to tackle broken bits of the power structure, Kaplan has transformed philanthropy in Alaska. She leaves behind an art-filled workspace, a trained and committed staff of 28, and a promise that the Foundation — which has grown its assets to about $800 million — will continue its mission into the indefinite future.

[Read and download our press release.]

A new approach

Diane Kaplan connects with a child during a 2017 visit to Oscarville, a village on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel.

As president and CEO, Kaplan’s approach to philanthropy raised the bar for funder partnership with business, government and other nonprofits. Championing bold initiatives like dental health aides for rural villages, the check-off charity option on the PFD application, sabbaticals for over-worked talent in the social sector, and the creation of community funds in cities and towns across the state, she embraced strategic grantmaking while carrying on the Rasmuson family tradition to be approachable, available and assisting.

“Diane has left an indelible mark not just on Rasmuson Foundation, but on philanthropy and the nonprofit community across Alaska,” said Foundation board Chair Adam Gibbons, a fourth-generation Rasmuson family member. “With her fearless and tireless leadership, we’ve been willing to tackle some of Alaska’s greatest challenges, from oral health care to alcoholism, from abandoned parks to abandoned people.  She and her team have scoured Alaska far and wide, listening, making friendships, building connections and finding opportunities where the Foundation can help.  We are so very grateful that Diane decided to make Alaska her home.”

Under Kaplan’s stewardship, the Foundation has invested nearly $500 million and leveraged millions more for Alaska organizations, including serving as impetus for the distribution of a $47 million Alaska Coronavirus Nonprofit Relief Fund, the creation of a multi-million dollar public-private partnership to solve homelessness in Anchorage, and a camps initiative that helped 12,000 Alaska kids get outdoors with friends after a year of pandemic isolation.

Tailormade tour of Alaska 

Under Kaplan, the Foundation has created an arts and culture initiative focused on putting dollars into the hands of artists. The announcement of the Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Awards, with grants ranging from $7,500 to $40,000, is a statewide annual arts event. But perhaps Kaplan’s most innovative initiative is the Foundation’s annual Grantmakers Tour of Alaska, a late summer getting-to-know-you visit for Outside grantmakers who typically do not fund Alaska projects, largely because Alaska is unfamiliar territory.

This tour takes them to rural villages and urban hotspots, to uplifting cultural venues and issue-oriented tribal meetings. Brave ones take a polar plunge in the Arctic. Most catch their first fish. Maybe there’s a boat ride to a village on the Kuskokwim. They see climate change firsthand in communities like Shishmaref, visit the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, take a ride to “nowhere” on the Alaska Railroad with 100 nonprofit leaders, and more. All of it is exhausting perhaps, but leavened by good food and great conversation with so many of Alaska’s best. A week later, the funders return home filled with new and useful information about the Far North. And when proposals to assist on a project come from Rasmuson Foundation, they understand; Alaska is now familiar, possible, inviting.

At 8:29 a.m. on Nov. 30, 2018, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska, its epicenter 10 miles north of Anchorage. Highways twisted. Houses fell. Power failed. Kaplan called anyone who could help — local funders and many of the national funders who now knew Alaska. In hours, a disaster relief fund was established.

For all kinds of initiatives and projects, tour participants have invested more than $300 million in Alaska.

All in with visionaries

In addition to the Foundation’s organized and earmarked programming, Kaplan is well known for her practice of listening to and supporting visionary entrepreneurs in the social sector: the engineering professor who built a school for Alaska Native students, the clerk from Old Harbor who rose through the ranks to run an internationally lauded health center, the woman from Savoonga who grew up to be president of a powerful regional nonprofit, the Alutiiq archeologist striving to revitalize his language and culture, the Olympic skier who runs a statewide community foundation with assets of $225 million.

And always the lost, the have-nots, those needing help with that first step to a better life, be it health, education, a home, sobriety, a job, a school — Kaplan believes solutions exist and it’s the job of people like her — and everyone in the nonprofit world — to find them.

The search for Kaplan’s replacement is underway. She will remain president and CEO until a new one is in place. During the search, she will continue to repaint the Alaska philanthropic landscape, depending on her talented and dedicated staff and always honoring the values of her mission partner — the late chairman of the board, Ed Rasmuson.

Want to learn more? Read and download our press release.