Why a Lifelong Californian is Taking the Helm at Boston's Barr Foundation

After 20 years at one of California’s biggest state funders, and active involvement in the local nonprofit scene, why exactly would Jim Canales ship all the way out to Boston to take over a smaller foundation? And why would Barr tap a lifelong Californian to take over the historically Massachusetts-focused foundation? Big plans are afoot.

The James Irvine Foundation drew the attention of the philanthropy community when it announced in late November that its longtime executive director James Canales would be stepping down. The former high school English teacher is headed toward a different Bay, as the new president of Boston’s Barr Foundation.

While it’s true that Barr is slightly smaller than Irvine—$1.4 billion vs. $1.5 billion—and that it has traditionally focused almost entirely on New England, the move actually heralds a big step up for both parties, as Canales will lead a planning process to explore how Barr might grow regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Barr arrived at its decision after a nationwide hunt for just the right person to explore taking its local work as the Bay State’s biggest grantmaker to a larger scale. Barr is led by two trustees, its notoriously private donors, Amos Barr Hostetter Jr. and wife Barbara Hostetter. Giving about $60 million a year, the foundation is a powerhouse in Massachusetts, focusing on arts, education, and climate change, with a recently established international program. With Hostetter’s personal net worth from the cable TV business estimated at $2.9 billion, the foundation could be on the brink of becoming a national player, with big decisions ahead on what that expanded program looks like.

Carrying a solid reputation and many established relationships in California and beyond, Canales should bring a fresh new perspective to the adventure. He was quite well-liked at Irvine, having just celebrated his 20th anniversary there and 10th year as CEO. And in his time at the helm, he narrowed giving down to three programs—arts, democracy and youth—while boosting assets and annual grantmaking. He also sits on the boards of a number of high-profile California nonprofits, and was appointed by President Obama to the White House Council for Community Solutions. 

Of course, there will be some big changes for Canales. For one, Irvine is a legacy foundation, whereas Barr has two living donors to dance with. And Irvine is far more open to the public than the low key, even secretive Hostetters. But by all accounts, Canales has the humility and patience for the task.

Of course, there are a couple of key personal benefits to the move. Canales’ partner, Jim McCann, grew up in Massachusetts and will be closer to his extended family. Canales also sounds like a baseball fan (go Sox!).

See Inside Philanthropy's profile of James Canales here, and more about the Barr Foundation here