Some Things Never Change

Our co-founder Joe Wilson said, “We overestimate what we can do in the short run—and underestimate what we can do in the long run.”[1]

This belief applied not only to his business endeavors, for which he arguably ranks among the most revered leaders of industry and a favorite son of Rochester, but also to his views on public service. He took the long view in building a strong community, not doing anything just “for show” but for results and to support institutions that “solve great issues” of the day. With his wife Peggy, he established their family’s philanthropic endeavor, the Marie C. and Joseph C. Wilson Foundation, in 1963. It is now led by their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who reside in states as different culturally and geographically as New York to Florida to Texas to Alaska, and many places in between.

It is with the long run in mind that the Foundation completed its strategic planning in 2018—asking itself, “how can we change?”—and then embarked on a series of changes across the Foundation’s activities to implement the plan over the succeeding years. While the internal workings of a family foundation are not usually of great interest to the public, we felt that sharing some of our key questions behind why we have made certain changes would be helpful for the public, our charitable investment partners, as well as our many friends to better understand our decision making and trajectory as a family foundation. Here are some of our key questions and answers:

GRANTMAKING:

Q: Should we continue to spread our investments around based on the locations and interests of the family while seeking to honor our founders’ interests and values that arose from their primary work in Rochester, or focus our charitable investments solely in Rochester?

A: We chose the latter, and have completed our transition to that end. In 2020, our grants will be made only in the Rochester area.

MISSION:

Q: Should we invest in all sorts of good work, or should we should try to solve one or two “great issues” of the day?

A: We chose the latter, and now seek to solve the problems of families experiencing housing instability and/or trauma that contribute to the endemic poverty that has plagued the Rochester community for generations. We expect to invest in additional evidence-based, proven strategies being implemented by the greatest minds working with purpose to solve this problem. Please read more about our strategic focus here.

TIMEFRAME AND SUCCESSION PLANNING:

Q: Should we seek to sunset the foundation over a finite period of years or seek to be as relevant to Rochester over the next 50 years as has been the case since our founding?

A: We chose the latter, and have developed and implemented a program to help prepare fourth generation family members, many of whom are now young adults, for future leadership roles in the Foundation. We made other substantial governance changes too, which we have written about elsewhere. We are also realigning our staffing, having replaced our current positions with two new positions, a part-time Vice President of Operations, and a Program Director, both of which will be focused on the Foundation’s mission advancement and sustainability goals. The search for our Program Director has just been launched. See a description here.

SUSTAINABILITY:

Q: How do we follow the caution of Joe Wilson by being careful not to overestimate the importance of our current activities and underestimate the importance of what we need to accomplish in the longer term?

A: Undergirding our plan is a renewed attention to financial sustainability. We know that with the many desires and needs of today, we risk the goal of staying highly relevant and vibrant in the future both to Rochester and to our next generation of family leaders if we do not balance today’s needs with tomorrow’s. For example, we have made changes to reduce organizational and administrative costs, allowing us to reinvest those savings to advance our mission. We have ended a program of discretionary grantmaking, while starting a program of impact investing. In the near term, this trajectory means a leaner budget for new charitable investments, but in the longer term, it means a larger and more stable pool of assets to draw from to support the most effective strategies for solving Rochester’s “great issues.”

For those who have been around Rochester a long time, the Wilson Foundation might feel like a mainstay–it will always be there to help important community initiatives. But each generation of a family must assess its raison d’etre, deciding whether to give of their time and talents in leadership. “Limited-life” foundations are on the rise, according to one study, with over 20% of family foundations planning to end their existence by granting out all assets within a certain period of years.[2] As a member of this community, I am personally thrilled that the Wilson Foundation’s current and incoming young leaders answered the lifespan question by committing to the “long run.”

Some things are changing. To rise to the call of our future direction, and to achieve the most we can in the long run, our methods must change, with mission-based investing, operational efficiency, and data-driven decision-making leading the way. Our partners may see these methods at work in our communications, requests for proposals, and choices about where to invest Foundation resources.

Happily, some things never change: the respect, love, and service to the community instilled by our founders, and a deep admiration and respect for those who each day apply their minds, hearts, and hands to the work of solving the big problems in Rochester and making our region a great place to live for all.

As an incoming employee of the Wilson Foundation, I regard it as a privilege to speak periodically on behalf of this esteemed organization. Prior to joining and for many years, I advised small family foundations. The Wilson Foundation and its peers in our region were the ones to imitate if the founders wanted to create a legacy that passed the test of time. As to my new role, I pledge to work to further the Foundation’s goals with integrity and diligence to accomplish the most that we can, looking both at the needs of today and of the future.

Rachel Sherman
Wilson Foundation


[1] All quotes from Joseph C. Wilson are taken from Charles D. Ellis, Joe Wilson and the Creation of Xerox ch. 27 (Wiley 2006).

[2] Paul Sullivan, A New Generation Seeks to Give it All Away Now, N.Y. Times, Jan. 17, 2020.

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