The Brinson Foundation: Chicago Grants

OVERVIEW: The Brinson Foundation funds a variety of education and scientific research causes around the city of Chicago and across the globe. Most education grants are made in the Chicago metropolitan area and are between $25,000 and $100,000 in size. Scientific research grants are about the same size, but they have a broader national reach and fewer of them are made each year.

FUNDING AREAS: Education, scientific research, medical research

IP TAKE: While this funder has lofty ambitions related to research, it hasn't forgotten about its home town. 

PROFILE: Gary Brinson joined First National Bank of Chicago as the Chief Investment Officer in 1979 and became one of the first proponents for investing pension funds in global investments like international stocks and real estate. He founded and was President and CEO of Brinson Partners Inc. (now UBS Global Asset Management) for 11 years. Before retiring in 2000, he was considered to be one of the world’s most influential investment managers, and he managed over $1 trillion in assets at one point.

Brinson established the Brinson Foundation when he retired, and grantmaking kicked off in 2001. From the beginning, grantmaking priorities have been education, scientific research, and medical research. Education grants have typically fallen into one of seven focus areas: Financial Literacy; Health Care Career Development; High School and College Access; Liberty, Citizenship and Free Enterprise; Literacy; STEM Education; and Student Health. You can see a breakdown of recent grants here.

In addition to the typical types of scientific research that other foundations fund, Brinson supports programs in astrophysics, cosmology, evolutionary development biology, and geophysics. Medical research is a lower foundation priority, which the Board of Directors chooses to support from time to time.

During Brinson’s career, his asset allocation theory was based on four key principles: thinking globally, realizing that the value of asset classes should not rise and fall together, focusing on the long term, and monitoring and adjusting allocations to accommodate changed investment climates. It’s easy to draw comparisons between Brinson’s investment principles and his grantmaking strategy. His grantmaking interests revolve around encouraging personal initiative, advancing individual freedom, and positively contributing to society in the areas of education and scientific research.

“After addressing the interests of my family, including a limited generational line of heirs that follow; the remaining fraction of my wealth goes to the Foundation for philanthropic purposes,” Brinson wrote in a statement. “If I had no opinion with respect to limiting the size of wealth transfer to my heirs, there would be no foundation.” Alongside Warren Buffett and Bill Gross, Brinson has been referred to as one of the “living legends” because of his successful investment career. But unlike Buffett, Brinson has not signed the Giving Pledge.

Also according to the founder’s statement, “The Brinson Foundation has been funded to date with approximately $100 million and is likely to receive considerable future funding; the size of which will be a function of investment returns, targeted allocations for my heirs and deductions for estate taxes and administrative expenses.”

At the end of a recent year, the Brinson Foundation reported over $97.5 million in assets and over $4.1 million in total giving. Assets are down and giving is up from past years. Most grants have been between $200 and $100,000 lately.

According to the foundation's current perspective, it's still operating under a "no new net grants" policy. This means that new grants will only be made as old ones are transitioned out of the budget.

Top local grantees have included Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics for graduate student funding and Chicago’s Adler Planetarium for scientific research. On the education front, Brinson has supported the local Chicago branch of the Posse Program, which is a multi-city organization that connects inner-city high school students with colleges and universities.

Within the multi-faceted education grantmaking priority, Brinson has been especially interested in programs that make quality education accessible to those who are personally committed. For example, Brinson announced a partnership with Namaste Charter School on the southwest side of Chicago. The foundation awarded three grants to this particular school to support STEM education, physical fitness, and nutrition programs. “By focusing several grants at one site, we believe we may be able to leverage the impact of each individual grant and thereby enhance the results we can achieve with our limited resources,” wrote President James Parsons.

For scientific research, Brinson is interested in programs on the cutting edge of research that are underfunded or not yet eligible for funding by governmental programs. These programs are typically sponsored by top research institutions that are well structured to provide quality assurance oversight and accountability and involve pre-doctoral and post-doctoral scientists who are beginning their research careers. 

Although the foundation does not accept grantseeker inquiries in medical research, you can submit an education or scientific research inquiry via email to mail@brinsonfoundation.org at any time of the year. Grantseeker information forms are not applications. See the grant process calendar for updated deadlines.

The Brinson Foundation is led by James D. Parsons, who has been the foundation president since 2004. Parsons is a University of Chicago Law School Graduate and was the managing partner of Gardner, Carton & Douglas LLP (now Drinker, Biddle & Reath). Parsons previously served on the Boards of the Donor’s Forum and Denison University, and he currently serves on the Boards of King Bruwaert House, the Morton Arboretum, and the Community House.

Parsons is joined by a small staff, including Senior Program Officer Christy Uchida, who previously worked with Boeing in the aircraft manager’s Enterprise Auditor Program for emerging leaders and on the Global Corporate Citizenship staff. You can contact Brinson’s staff at mail@brinsonfoundation.org or by phone at 312-799-4500 with general inquiries.

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