Tosa Foundation: Grants for Conservation

OVERVIEW: John and Tashia Morgridge founded the Tosa Foundation in 1992 with the intention of financing humanitarian and environmental causes in their native Wisconsin. The foundation is now mostly focused on California, but has broadened its mission to other parts of the United States. Funding for conservation is still one of the foundation’s fortés—in particular, for conservation ventures that are located in the American West and involve public enjoyment of the outdoors.

IP TAKE: Tosa's giving for conservation is anchored by its massive support for The Nature Conservancy. But depending on the year, the foundation gives millions in other environment grants, ranging widely both in geography and grant amount.

PROFILE: For years, philanthropist couple John and Tashia Morgridge gave anonymously, then went public in 2010 with their mission of giving away as much of their wealth as possible during their lifetimes. The Tosa Foundation, the charitable organization that they co-founded in Wisconsin and still operate, has consequently been upping its giving in a huge way in recent years. And organizations working in environmental conservation have been prime beneficiaries of this increased charity. 

Tosa does not have any staff or public guidelines, but based on past years' giving, education is the funder's highest priority, making up a large chunk of its annual $50 million or so in annual grants to various causes. But conservation has also been a big focus, depending on the year, with more than $5 million in cash grants in certain years. 

The biggest grantee, making up bulk of the foundation's conservation giving, is the Nature Conservancy. John Morgridge served as a board member for the green philanthropy favorite from 1998 to 2008, as treasurer, vice chair and ultimately chair, and his devotion to the international conservation group shows in Tosa's giving. The Morgridges have donated more than $50 million to the organization, mostly in the form of huge chunks of Cisco stock starting in 2005, but also in cash grants. It’s the second-largest beneficiary of the couple, with Stanford University just ahead. 

Aside from the Nature Conservancy, individual grant amounts vary widely. Some are as little as $1,000; others are $500,000 or more. The overwhelming majority of this foundation’s beneficiaries, though, are medium-sized, lesser-known regional and local groups. Many are situated somewhere in the North American West. There is the Sempervirens Fund, which has received $500 a year for the last few consecutive years from Tosa for its stewardship of redwood forests in California. Tosa also issued a whopping-big $500,000 award one year, and a smaller $10,000 award in another, to the American Prairie Foundation, and several consecutive grants of $2,500 each to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, which attends to open space, farmland, and parkland in the Silicon Valley region.

You may have noticed that California comes up a few times in the list of recipients above. This is no accident. Not only is the foundation now based in California, but John Morgridge worked for many years as an engineer for the California branch of Cisco Systems. The golden state is a place that the Morgirdges have come to know and love, and their funding patterns show it.

Other parts of the United States get Tosa’s attention, too, however. For example, it has given more than $100,000 over the last few years to the Squam Lakes Conservation Society, a New Hampshire operation, along with other groups in that state.

And speaking more broadly, Tosa seems to be partial to sites in which the general public and nature cross paths: nature reserves, hiking trails, etc. The couple has said their passion for the environment is directly tied to past enjoyment of the outdoors while growing up in Wisconsin, and giving reflects that love of exploring nature.

For example, Tosa has given $300,000 to the Yosemite Conservancy for its care of Yosemite National Park; around $3,500 over the last several years to the Rails to Trails Association, a group sponsoring construction of nature trails across the United States, and $120,000 to the Appalachian Mountain Club, whose mission is promoting the “protection and enjoyment” (italics added) of the Mid-Atlantic United States’ Appalachian Mountains.

Keep in mind that education in general is one of the Morgridges’ personal passions. Funding for academic scholarships, after-school programs, and other school-related endeavors forms the lion’s share of this foundation’s grant making. That the foundation funds projects to engage the public in appreciating and conserving nature is, when you think about it, fairly consistent with this education-centered bent.

Most of Tosa's giving is within the United States. But there are exceptions to this. It has awarded $25,000 to the Global Heritage Fund, a foundation that supports protection of culturally valued “heritage sites” throughout the developing world, such as the Mirador Archaeological and Wildlife Area in Peru. A few conservation organizations working in the Amazon region have also benefited from Tosa’s generosity.

The Morgridges only give to pre-selected organizations, and while they've gone public as donors, they're still pretty well off the radar. There is no website, nor do they publish their emails. The best way to reach them is probably by phone or traditional mail. Tashia Morgridge is at the helm, and the listed phone number is (650) 851-6922; their mailing address is 3130 Alpine Road, PMB 705, Ste. 288, Portola Valley, California, 94028.

Regardless, it will take some networking to get on this couple's radar, but their foundation will definitely be one to watch closely as they spend down the trust in coming years.

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