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Danforth Foundation has ended its giving but not its influence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 27, 2011 - Now that the Danforth Foundation has closed its doors after 84 years and more than a billion dollars in grants to the St. Louis area and elsewhere, don't go looking online to find its website.

Of course, even before it shut down at the end of May, the foundation had no presence on the internet. Nor did it operate with a large staff or go out of its way to draw attention to itself. It preferred to speak through its grants to Washington University, the Danforth Plant Science Center and other institutions. And it never intended to be around forever.

The grandsons of William H. Danforth, who began the foundation in 1927 with securities including $100,000 in stock in his company, Ralston Purina, said such a low public profile was a good reflection of the man who started it all.

"He was a person who was very, very successful in business," said former Sen. John C. Danforth in a recent interview, "and he was also a person who was very unpretentious in the way he lived his life.

"John Wesley said make all you can, save all you can, give all you can. That was the old Protestant ethic, and that was how our grandfather lived. He was not into amassing great wealth for himself."

Added his brother, Dr. William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University:

"My grandfather didn't talk much about his giving. He talked about programs he liked, but I learned about the foundation from other people. He talked about the accomplishments of the people to whom he gave."

With the foundation shutting down, will others step in to assume its role, in terms of both setting an example and providing resources to help ideas grow into institutions that make St. Louis a better place?

Those familiar with local philanthropy point out that the foundation's legacy is more than financial -- it's one of leadership, and if that lesson has been learned, concerns about the future are misplaced.

"I don't look at it as a glass that has gotten half-empty," said Gary Dollar, president and chief executive of the United Way of Greater St. Louis.

"I look at it as: How do we invest our resources in the community and do it better and smarter? This is a very generous community. They have built a wonderful infrastructure with a wonderful foundation. Those are great tools for us. How do we take it and build on it?"

Attorney Walter Metcalfe Jr., a former trustee of the foundation, noted that while it set an ambitious, progressive agenda, its leaders never dictated to the community what the future should look like.

"The Danforth Foundation was ahead of its time in recognizing opportunities and needs," he said. "Perhaps it's time for the rest of us to grow up and get to work on our own and not wait for the Danforths to tell us what is best for us to do."

Changes in Focus

From its beginning until 1996, the Danforth Foundation dedicated efforts to fulfill its mission -- "for charitable and humanitarian purposes and to promote the well-being of mankind" -- by concentrating on gifts to educational institutions nationwide. It also funded scholarships to summer camps the first William H. Danforth had founded with others, and it paid to build chapels on nearly two dozen university campuses.


Some Foundation Beneficiaries

Amounts represent what was given at the time it was given, not adjusted for growth.

Washington University$423.3 million
(since 1950)
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center$226.5 million
(since 1998)
American Youth Foundation$35.2 million
(in about the last 10 years)
St. Louis University$24.4 million
City Academy$19.5 million
Downtown revitalization projects$21.7 million
St. Louis 2004$12.5 million
Forest Park Forever$7 million
St. Louis Public Schools and Desegregation Committee$6.8 million
Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences$6 million
Cardinal Ritter College Prep$5.5 million
The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra$5 million
Edward "Ted" and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park$3.4 million
(used for acquisition of park's initial 253 acres)
Central Riverfront and Arch Grounds Connector$3.0 million
Parents as Teachers$1.1 million
CET$1 million loan
I Dare You$.9 million

Numbers provided by the foundation


To nurture the next generation of community leaders, it instituted training that emphasized moral, spiritual and religious development. Other programs broadened that focus, including the "Danny Grad Program," where women were sent to college campuses to help Christian religious groups; the Danforth Fellowship Program, to encourage Ph.D. candidates to go into teaching; and the Danforth Associates Program, designed to foster better instruction on campus by improving relationships between teachers and their students.

After William H. Danforth's death in 1955, the foundation began giving money not just to individuals but to institutions, including two that would benefit a lot from its gifts in the coming years -- Washington University and Saint Louis University. Then, the emphasis shifted again, this time to education before college, as well as to disparities in the nation's urban areas as civil unrest spread in the 1960s.

Closer to home, the foundation increased its giving to the two major local universities, with matching grants of $60 million to Washington U. and $20 million to St. Louis U. It also funded the St. Louis Metropolitan Fellowship Program, which evolved into Leadership St. Louis.

Its interest in other aspects of education deepened with support for the first Parents as Teachers program, a model that began in Missouri and spread nationwide. On the other end of the educational spectrum, it established a program to help colleges and universities prepare educators to become school principals.

In the 1990s, with the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase and the 100th anniversary of the area's World's Fair approaching, the foundation helped support St. Louis 2004, which worked to improve the region's performance in a number of areas. That led to a major shift for the foundation, which announced in 1997 that it would narrow its focus and concentrate on issues of interest to its local area.

Continuing its support for Washington U. and St. Louis U., the foundation also made major gifts to Forest Park Forever, to support its work in restoring the area's major park; to the creation of a park at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers; and to Downtown Now!, to help plan and carry out the revival of the downtown area.

In 1998, it announced yet another major initiative, one that would become one of its final areas of interest -- the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, to help make the region a premier center for the life sciences, tying together work done at Monsanto, the Missouri Botanical Garden, Washington U. and other institutions and businesses.

That specialty, along with neighborhood development and the continued renaissance of downtown, became the three-pronged plan that guided the foundation's spending during its final years. In 2003, it said it would dedicate 60 percent of its money that was not yet committed to other projects to plant and life sciences. Earlier this year, it said its final $70 million would go to the Danforth Plant Science Center, and the foundation would cease operations on May 31.

That didn't mean no other projects have received support in recent years. Funding has gone to efforts such as the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington U. and to the tornado relief efforts in Joplin, which was awarded the foundation's final $500,000 earlier this month to help found Joplin and attract new businesses to the stricken area.

(The St. Louis Beacon also benefited from the foundation's support, receiving a grant of $1.25 million that was announced earlier this year.)

Common Threads, New Priorities

The common thread that runs through all of the foundation's shifts in emphasis is a recognition that as the world changed, as old issues got increased attention and new ones cropped up, the Danforth Foundation was willing to change as well.

For example, William Danforth noted that when the fellowship grants for higher education became more predictable, and the federal government and other foundations contributed more support to colleges and universities during the post-Sputnik years, the foundation shifted its emphasis to schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, which were receiving far less attention.

"We felt that college education had become part of the national consciousness," he said, "and a lot of money was flowing into that. I wouldn't say that K-12 education was being neglected, but it was underappreciated."

Similarly, instead of diffusing its influence by spending on issues on a national scale, the foundation realized it could be more effective by sharpening its attention on problems at home.

"With finite resoures," John Danforth said, "and something as infinite as secondary education or K-12 education, to have any real impact you have to focus your resources, and we thought what better than St. Louis? Let's turn our attention to St. Louis."

The results, they acknowledge, have been mixed. They point to the Plant Science Center as an institution they feel will have lasting impact and will help establish the region as a center for a field whose importance will grow. When it comes to an effort like St. Louis 2004, which John Danforth spearheaded, he admits that the results were "a mixed bag."

"Part of what it did was very good and lasting," he said. "The parks and trails that were established were a great thing for St. Louis, and they built on existing strengths that we had, built something that was lasting. Some things downtown, like Washington Avenue and the Old Post Office, also worked out well

"The problem with St. Louis 2004 was its eyes were bigger than its stomach. It was too broad and diffuse. I think it's better to focus on a few big things than a lot of littler things. But I think there was a lot of community engagement, and people were interested in what was going on."

Peter Sortino, who was president of St. Louis 2004, then filled the same role at the Danforth Foundation in its closing years, said strategic investment was important in both efforts. He cited the Merchandise Mart downtown as an early example of the housing boom that took off later but was having a difficult time getting off the ground.

"There wasn't a lot of other housing going on," he said. "That was a project that was almost there. It was on the three-yard line, and it needed that final push to make it happen. Then, it created a platform for a lot of the other development that followed. We didn't stay in the business of residential financing after that because it kind of took on a life of its own.

"That's the way we wanted to work: Make an investment that will lead to change. You don't have to be in that market forever."

All three men agreed that the spending of the foundation was not perfect, and they'd like to be able to get back some of the money they put into certain projects and spend it elsewhere.

"But you don't know that until later," William Danforth said, prompting his brother John to add:

"And isn't that true to life, the way people spend their own money? You do your best as you see it at the time, and only later do you think that you could have done it better."

"My only regret," William Danforth responded, "is that we don't have more money to spend."

Building on Success

They are proud at how the institutions they helped have grown strong and have in turn been able to help strengthen the region around them. At Washington University, for example, where the present value of gifts from the foundation amounts to $1.3 billion, William Danforth points out how it has become not just an educational institution but an "economic engine for St. Louis, bringing in creative faculty who are doing things and nurturing business leaders and physicians.

"We've helped make St. Louis a center for the life sciences and have hundreds of millions of dollars coming in, and I hope that will be true for plant science center as well. We need to keep the economy of our region strong."

That work will now be left to others, and they think their successors in the philanthropy field are up to the task, as unending as it might seem.

"There are scores, maybe hundreds of organizations in St. Louis that are trying to do good work," William Danforth said.

"There's never going to be enough money to satisfy all the needs and all the wonderful things that could be done. But I am a big believer in institutions. I think institutions can carry forward dreams after we have moved on, and if you do them right they can be very helpful. That's just something that has always appealed to me. You have to think about how it's going to be carried on."

"I don't think there was ever any interest in the Danforth Foundation itself being a permanent institution," John Danforth added. "What is better for St. Louis, to have a foundation that just goes on and on, or to have institutions which are strong and which are world-class? That's certainly true of Washington University, and we believe it will be true of the Plant Science Center. It's better to do big things than to keep yourself going."

It's that outlook that encourages others to think the Danforths' vision will be able to go on even after their foundation is gone.

"The Danforth Foundation has always been very farsighted in making endowment gifts, the income of which would grow under the investment policies of individual institutions," said John H. Biggs, a former trustee of the foundation and former chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, the financial services organization for educational institutions.

"They weren't for building a specific building or doing a special project. They were for things that would continue. Very few foundations do that. They usually give you a grant to spend down during a period of time. We could have kept the foundation alive for a long, long time by simply allocating income to one of these centers for a period of time, but the Danforth brothers always felt very strongly that they wanted to be able to fund others, not go on in perpetuity."

Because of that legacy, said Mary McMurtrey, president of the Gateway Center for Giving, any concerns about the future of philanthropy in St. Louis need not be so great.

"The exit of the Danforth Foundation shouldn't be seen as a deficit, where there now exists a void," she said, "but rather as an opportunity to see how an effective foundation strengthens a community so that when and if it ceases to operate, it doesn't leave an operational void but rather a legacy of capacity."

In that sense, said attorney Metcalfe, the former trustee of the foundation, it isn't really gone but lives on in the recipients of its grants.

"I don't think it's appropriate to say that the Danforth Foundation has ended," he said. "It certainly has distinguished itself, and what it has accomplished for St. Louis. It may have ended its legal existence, but the reason for its work and the products of its investments will be vibrant and healthy for a long time to come, through the funding and the wisdom and the energies of Bill Danforth and Jack Danforth.

The people and the structures necessary to fund similar projects in the future are in place, he added.

"Is there another foundation or group in St. Louis that will start up those ideas and fund them and nurture them and take them to maturity? I think it's a great opportunity for others to step up."

To Charles Lowenhaupt, a local attorney who helps manage and encourage private giving, that aspect of the Danforth Foundation may be its greatest gift to the St. Louis area.

"It had people of vision," he said. "It was always ready to start a new project based on St. Louisans who had vision, and if they had that vision and a creative project, they started. There was no requirement that a venture had to succeed.

"That is the advantage of private philanthropy. The original William Danforth took huge risks. He wasn't afraid to try things that might fail. And whether it's in St. Louis or Shanghai of Sydney or London, great wealth is built on risk, and great wealth philanthropy is willing to take risks.

"They did a very responsible job of preparing the community for the eventuality they would shut own. They deserve great credit for that."

Gary Dollar at the United Way sums it up this way:

"The Danforth Foundation has played the role of challenging us, helping us move forward and helping us think new thoughts. The skills they taught us and the challenges they made are still there. We have to move forward and take it to a new level."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.