Will Barr's New President Expand Its National and Global Footprint at the Expense of Boston Nonprofits?

Amos Hostetter Jr. and his wife Barbara established the Boston-based Barr Foundation 15 years ago, but as Barbara told the Boston Globe, “It is a good time for us to step back and let it go.” The Hostetters were clearly looking to take the foundation in a different direction when they hired Jim Canales last October. This San Francisco native has a mother from Nicaragua, a father from Mexico, and a partner, Jim McCann, who moved with him to downtown Boston.

Canales’s first day in office was May 12th, and big changes are just around the  corner. “Change will occur,” Canales told the Boston Globe. “It will be gradual and evolutionary. It will be carried out in a respectful and transparent way.”

The Barr Foundation, which has traditionally focused grantmaking in and around Boston, is looking to expand its national reach in the years ahead. Its education program is currently focused on closing achievement gaps in Boston Public Schools, and the arts and culture program focuses on building vibrant programs within the city limits. However, Barr Global was established in 2010 to fight poverty abroad, and the foundation’s climate change program invests in large-scale efforts to help various cities make their buildings and transportation more energy efficient. Although Barr grantmaking has already been slowly and quietly expanding its geographical reach, Canales’ first week on the job is just the beginning of a new era.

But despite the upcoming geographical shift, Canales doesn’t want Boston nonprofits to get too worried. “This is a foundation that was birthed in this city,” he said. “It has a deep history and commitment to Boston, and that commitment will be sustained.”

Even though Canales is the very first president of the $1.4 billion foundation, he still has to keep his goals in line with what the Hostetters want. What they don't want is for Barr to become the next Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, enormous and technocratic. Barr grantmaking will continue to tap out around $60 million per year, without a significant increase in the number of grants. Or at least, that's the word now. But keep in mind that the Hostetters have another $3 billion in assets that they've yet to put into the foundation. And with the couple now in their 70s, it stands to reason that this money won't be kept on the sidelines for that much longer. In other words, the Barr Foundation could easily double or even triple in size in coming years, which could explain what a heavyhitter like Canales is doing there to begin with. 

“We know and respect that what we have here is a lot of money,” said Barbara Hostetter. “We want to do this right. I feel like the foundation is an adolescent entering adulthood and that it is time to take a very big leap.” 

One thing is for sure: There are plenty of resources here for Barr to both keep its Boston commitments and take on a bigger national and global role. 

To keep up with what Canales is doing, follow @BarrFdn and @jcanales on Twitter.