This time like no other is prompting us to examine ourselves and our own work with fresh eyes and, recently, heavy hearts. Here is a sampling of recent activities involving Rasmuson Foundation, nonprofits and other grantees in Alaska.
— Diane Kaplan, president and CEO, Rasmuson Foundation
Love, knowledge and connection
On May 16, we marked our 65th anniversary, a time to reflect on what has been and to plan for what is next. So much has changed yet our basic approach has remained remarkably steady, guided by the family’s values of honesty, loyalty, hard work and giving back. You might already know that our the first grant in 1955 was $125 for a motion picture projector for the Wasilla Presbyterian Church teen club. (One of our founders, Jenny Rasmuson, covered the remaining $125 out of her own pocket.) But did you know the second-ever grant, in 1956, was $250 to King’s Lake Camp near Wasilla? Elmer Rasmuson, our first chairman, helped build the camp and, as president of its board, helped oversee its growth into a major recreational facility. He wrote in his memoir how it was forever dear to him. In 2019, we awarded $330,000 to improve what is now the Salvation Army of Alaska King’s Lake Camp.
When I interviewed board members this year for our upcoming special 65th anniversary Annual Letter to Alaska, each shared such compelling insights and memories. One example: Natasha von Imhof recalled an early bank management training program in which she was directed to identify two or three words to be her moral compass. Right away, she knew one was “love,” what we are all put on this earth to do. She kept thinking on it and over the course of years landed on two more: knowledge and connection. Those are the words she lives by. And she said she sees how they play out in the work of the Foundation, through our knowledge of communities and needs, our convenings and, yes, our love for Alaska.
In this anniversary year, we thank all the Board members for putting so much of themselves into the Foundation’s work, for their leadership and for their sharing of ideas.
Elmer left us with so much, accumulated wealth, a family legacy of giving back and words of wisdom. He was an intentional visionary, looking as far ahead as possible and identifying the most important issues. One benefit of doing so, he noted, was that a long-term view puts trivial matters in their place. This time of coronavirus, while putting our attention on the immediate, also focuses us on what is most important.
Reflecting on injustice
We are grieving together the horrible death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. The rage behind the protests spreading across our country serves as a call to action for all of us. How can we turn this moment of despair and deep sadness into something that brings change? Each of us can pause to examine our own actions and our own work. The protests amplify disparities that already had become more exposed in the pandemic.
Angela Cox, vice president of External Affairs, and I quickly convened a meeting with Alaska Black leaders. The group included state Sen. David Wilson; nonprofit consultant Ken Miller; YWCA CEO Theresa Lyons; Jocasta Olp, a pharmacist and diversity coordinator of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce; Capt. Tony April of Alaska State Troopers; Stephanie McFadden-Evans of Alaska Public Media; and Niki Tshibaka, the state’s assistant education commissioner. Eight Board members and four from our Leadership Team then gathered to think together about opportunities for Rasmuson Foundation to positively contribute to promote racial equity.
We discussed a media campaign promoting everyday African American individuals, to bring us all closer as human beings, and a public service announcement featuring prominent Alaska citizens. Board members asked that we examine where our support might make a difference.
Pandemic pauses awards of small grants
When the world began to shut down because of coronavirus, 65 requests for our Tier 1 small grants were pending. The sudden drop in our assets, along with crisis-driven new needs, led us to quickly pause funding of these grants. The Program Team settled on 10 of the 65 to fund — 15% compared to our normal approval rate of about 85%. Requests were granted for a short list: critical needs, projects that served especially vulnerable populations, and projects that were from organizations that we had connected with directly to encourage an application. This small batch of awards includes $20,000 to the Nulato Tribal Council for a community sawmill; $25,000 to Access Alaska, a disability rights organization, for office renovation, furnishings and equipment in Fairbanks (reduced from a larger Tier 2 request); and $25,000 to Yakutat Tlingit Tribe to start construction on a crime victim services shelter.
Our Program Team is calling or emailing the other 55 applicants to inform them that their request is being withdrawn, for now. Organizations were seeking our help with the typical array of small projects: improvements to a bunkhouse or radio station, carpet, technology. Some were proposed before the pandemic and couldn’t be done anytime soon anyway. “Everyone I have talked to has been very gracious and understanding and thankful for all the work the Foundation is doing,” program officer Tanya Dumas said.
In this upended time, the $490,000 remaining for small grants in 2020 will be directed mainly to requests for help with operating expenses, which we don’t routinely fund.
Golden anniversary for Elmer’s namesake library
Fifty years ago, the University of Alaska Fairbanks celebrated the grand opening of the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library with visiting dignitaries, donors, faculty and students. Elmer Rasmuson, one of our founders as well as first chairman, served 19 years on the University of Alaska Board of Regents, donated his personal papers to the Archives, Alaska and Polar Regions collections, and was the major funder of the library’s Rare Book and Map Collection.
Rasmuson Foundation has been a key supporter of library expansion, renovation and special projects.
Although the pandemic led the university to cancel an in-person 50th anniversary celebration, the occasion still was marked virtually. A new web feature presents the history of the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library with stories, photos, videos and a list of significant objects from the library nominated by users, “50 Objects for 50 Years.” Items nominated include an 1898 photo of miners ascending Chilkoot Pass to find gold in the Klondike. Enjoy the 50th anniversary web feature here.
The library is the largest of its kind in Alaska with more than 1.75 million books, periodicals, films, sound recording, documents, etc. It strives to fulfill the goal of Charles Bunnell, the university’s first president and de facto librarian, to collect “everything that has been published on Alaska by Alaskans” by acquiring one copy of all publications about the state. A recent project in the works will repurpose some of the library’s space to create a student success center.
Matching and discretionary grants, all for KUAC public radio and television
Fairbanks Board member Rebecca Brice Henderson reports that Fairbanks public radio and television station KUAC was able to leverage her recent Rasmuson Foundation discretionary grant on May 1. The fun MOM Day, for May One Match, started with a total of four, $5,000 gifts counting Rebecca’s. The goal was to try to match them all, for an additional $20,000. “Well! What a success it was!” says Gretchen Gordon, interim KUAC general manager. “We blew through the match in under three hours and raised over $83K for the day!” Rebecca also made her own contribution, generating Foundation matching funds on top of the discretionary grant, an excellent way to leverage for public radio.
Meanwhile, magical radio hour for KNBA
During this year’s spring membership drive at KNBA radio, we offered a dollar-for-dollar match up to $1,000 during what they called the Rasmuson Foundation hour. Events manager Sonya Wellman and I joined host Loren Dixon in thanking donors live on air. In less than 40 minutes, the $1,000 matching limit was achieved. To continue our support for the rest of the time, I announced that we would be matching an additional $2,000. In that single hour, KNBA raised $6,360.
$1 million surprise for Haines foundation
It took Chilkat Valley Community Foundation 12 years to grow its endowment to $1 million. It took a day to reach the second million. Community foundation leaders were ecstatic to learn in late May that a local philanthropist, Lucy Harrell, had left the organization $1 million — her first donation ever to the community foundation. The donation stands out as a textbook example of the importance of cultivating relationships. Harrell had given to other causes she cared about before, but not the community foundation. The community foundation kept in touch — and kept asking. Chilkat Valley Community Foundation is an affiliate of The Alaska Community Foundation created through an initiative we started in 2005. It received $95,000 in Rasmuson Foundation matching dollars in 2019.
A new taste of wild Alaska
Barnacle Foods, a Juneau-based wild foods business, is growing, thanks to new investment by Sealaska. It now is operating in a new Juneau facility with two year-round employees in addition to seasonal workers and the three founding partners. Barnacle, with bull kelp as an innovative main ingredient, got an early boost in 2016 when it won the Path to Prosperity business development competition run by Spruce Root. The prize brought a $40,000 award and professional development through an intensive business boot camp.
Sealaska founded Spruce Root in 2012 to support community development in Southeast Alaska. We were an early Spruce Root investor with a $375,000 grant in 2014 as well as two small grants over the years. Barnacle’s locally sourced, environmentally friendly products are flavorful and unique: kelp salsa and dried seasoning, spruce tip jelly and rhubarb jam, even a kelp + cayenne chocolate bar. Anthony Mallott, Sealaska president and CEO, said in a company announcement about the investment that “Barnacle fits with who we are.” Mallott, a former Foundation Board member, is a current member of our Investment Committee and a Spruce Root board member. Senior program officer Chris Perez also serves on the Spruce Root board.
Fellows weave own experiences into exploration of grantmaking
In mid-May, Philanthropy Northwest gathered the Momentum Fellowship cohort for a two-day virtual retreat. Rasmuson Foundation Fellows Emily Kwon and Tristan Agnauraq Morgan participated in small group discussions and activities around the topics of adaptive leadership, grantmaking with an equity lens and strategies to use while working from home during times of crisis. The fellowship program supports professionals of color along a path to a career in philanthropy. Mares Asfaha and Sharayah Lane, Momentum Fellowship program managers, led the sessions. Fellows were able to take a deep dive into how to combine their own experiences with strategic grantmaking and community support.
Guest speakers included fellowship coach Holly Morris; C’Ardiss “CC” Gardner Gleser, director of programs and strategic initiatives of Satterberg Foundation; and Philanthropy Northwest staff Dawn Chirwa, Anne Katahira and Marissa Jackson. Other Alaska fellows include Pili Queja of Alaska Children’s Trust and Kay Larson-Blair of Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation.
Inuit tattooing shows cultural connections and identity
Tristan also was featured in a recent Anchorage Museum online exhibit, “Identifying Marks: Tattoos and Expression” for her tavluġun, or chin tattoo, and sassuma arnaa, or finger tattoos, given to her by Sarah Whalen-Lunn, a 2018 Individual Artist Award recipient. The exhibit shared stories and photos of a dozen indigenous Alaska women with traditional tattoos. Holly Mititquq Nordlum, an Iñupiaq artist and 2013 IAA recipient who has been a leader in reviving the tradition, explained techniques and tools. Tristan spoke about how much it means to her when young Iñupiaq girls hold her hands while asking about her marks. “That is probably the most exciting and fulfilling part, the connections I make with other indigenous people through my tavluġun and sassuma arnaa.”