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Rubin: Wilson Foundation can't give money away fast enough

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Dave Egner can’t spend Ralph Wilson’s money fast enough.

He’ll get better at it. The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation isn’t even 21/2 years old yet, and in 2015 it was more or less on its own.

Kayla Hamilton, 4, jumps as she plays “sleepy bunny” during recess at Edison Elementary. The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation funds Playworks, which turns recess into a time to enhance kids’ skills.

But as president and CEO, Egner’s job is to parcel out $1.2 billion to assorted good causes in 20 years. There’s a board, of course, but he’s the friendly figure in charge. And for 2016?

The foundation dispersed $56 million, which would be a pretty good year for most of us — but it earned $57 million. “So essentially,” he says, “we were $1 million in the hole.”

These are interesting times for the Wilson Foundation. Actually, most every time is interesting when your founder owned the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, you’re one of the wealthiest foundations in Michigan and your mission is to spend yourself out of existence by Jan. 8, 2035.

Next week, the foundation will release a youth sports survey that will explore, among other things, why kids aren’t playing. That’s intriguing.

The foundation is due to move next month to an actual office at Woodward and Grand Boulevard, leaving behind temporary headquarters in a slab-floored loft near a Detroit McDonald’s where words and laughter echo and vice president Jim Boyle often flees to the sidewalk when he makes phone calls. That’s inviting.


Having started with no stationery, one employee and a core of four friends of Wilson as life trustees — the better to turn his personal interests into projects — it recently added seven staffers to reach a complement of 17. That’s invaluable.

And the $1.2 billion keeps growing.

Love for Detroit, Buffalo

The foundation’s founder was a let-them-eat-cake guy, in a good way.

A wild success in mining, manufacturing, insurance and other fields, Wilson lived quietly in Grosse Pointe Shores until his death at 95 in 2014. He was less anonymous in Buffalo, where he owned the Bills for 54 years.

His widow, Mary, gets recognized regularly there, Egner says, though the estate sold the team six months after his death. Over the years, the Wilsons grew friendly with the hardy season ticket holders with seats in front of their suite, and would regularly pass forward desserts, Egner adds.

Nine western New York counties surrounding Buffalo share the assets and attention of the foundation equally with southeast Michigan. While the office is in Detroit, the website was designed in Buffalo and a new conference table will be crafted there of local lumber.

One of Egner’s favorite grants so far was $2 million to top off the capital campaign for the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum & Center for Comedy, designed to be a tourist attraction in her hometown of Jamestown, New York.

“I’m not sure five years from now it would have fit our strategy,” says Egner, 55, but for now it falls under economic development — and who doesn’t love Lucy?

Making gifts last

The late Ralph Wilson Jr. of Grosse Pointe Shores owned the Buffalo Bills.

Among the good things about having $1.2 billion to play with is that even though your foundation is impermanent, you can make gifts that last.

Wilson wanted to focus on children and youth, including early development, after-school programs and sports; education and skill training for young adults and working-class families; resources and education related to caregiving; and crafting healthy communities in ways ranging from design to innovation to nonprofits.

So early on, “They did a really creative thing,” says Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Wilson’s team connected with Noland’s team to endow revenue-generating funds for caregivers and sports equipment, meaning those bases will continue to be covered long after Egner spends himself out of a job.

“If we were going to run that sort of small grant, we’d need three to five more people,” Egner says. Better to consult and invest with experts whose boots are already on the ground and pointed in the right direction.

One example: Playworks, a national nonprofit that helps turn recess into a place where elementary schoolers absorb social and emotional skills while they romp around getting exercise.

“We’re trying to ensure that play happens,” says Angela Rogensues, executive director of the Metro Detroit office. You’d think that would come naturally, but foursquare and tag are under assault from time constraints, increased academic emphases and games contested on screens instead of fields.

Goofing around “is very serious work for kids,” she says, and the Wilson Foundation agrees. In October, it awarded $1.14 million to be split between the local and Rochester, New York, outposts across two years. The grant let Playworks embed a full-time aide in 10 schools, train a staffer at 14 more, and expand to new districts in Macomb County.

As time marches on and the foundation gets a better idea of what’s working, Egner says, it will write larger checks. Depending on his mood, he compares the strategy to either a funnel or a martini — “not so much the self-medicating,” but the notion of a wide body of donations at the top, tapering to more focused giving later on.

Soon, he says, the yearly total will need to hit $75 million to $100 million. Down the road, a truly transformational project might get $50 million by itself.

As for 2017, it’s looking like $50 million to $60 million again, break-even at best. He’s still treading water — but at least it’s a nice, deep pool.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

How to apply

To apply for a grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, visit rcwjrf.org. About 1,400 registrations were logged in 2016, staffers say, and the foundation received 400-450 letters of inquiry deemed legitimate, meaning they came from a 501(c)3 within the seven southeast Michigan counties and nine western New York counties serviced by the organization.

The application section of the website outlines priorities, approaches and restrictions, including this: “The Foundation does not make grants to individuals, fundraising social events, conferences or exhibits.”