Brinson Foundation: Grants for Higher Education

OVERVIEW: The Brinson Foundation gives mainly in Chicago, and mostly to a combination of education programs and general funding for organizations the board endorses. Brinson’s science research program, however, is national in scope and funds narrow initiatives in astronomy, cosmology, biology, geophysics and medicine. A handful of geographic exceptions have also been made for universities through its education funding stream.

IP TAKE: Unless you're working on Brinson's niche focus areas in scientific research, your higher ed program is unlikely to find support here. Restrictions also exist on submitting unsolicited proposals or inquiries. 

PROFILE: For about 30 years, Gary Brinson worked in the field of investment and money management, establishing a reputation as one of the best and most influential in the business. CFA Magazine called him one of seven living legends in the investment profession. Brinson didn’t like where the market was headed in the late 1990’s, and retired just before the dot-com bubble burst in 2000.

While Brinson doesn’t have any personal background in science, he does have an appreciation for its potential to improve the human condition. In 2001, the Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian started the Brinson Foundation, a Chicago-based foundation that does a sizeable portion of its grantmaking in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Brinson has not signed the Giving Pledge. But in a Founder’s Statement, he has said he is limiting the amount he leaves to his heirs because he believes excessive inheritance will hurt their initiative and self-esteem. So what he’s not leaving to his children is what the foundation gets.

In recent years, the foundation has given around $3 million to $4 million annually to a mix of specific priorities mostly built around encouraging personal achievement. Around half of annual giving goes to education in the areas of financial literacy, health care career development, high school/college/career success, liberty/citizenship/free enterprise, literacy, STEM for “pre-school through graduate school students or professional development for teachers” and promotion of STEM careers, and student health. The board also has a set of “endorsement grants,” comprising core support for organizations selected by directors, that made up about $1.3 million in a recent year.

Within its education program, most of Brinson's recent funding has been directed at organizations outside of postsecondary academia. There have been a few exceptions, however, and their locations were not limited to greater Chicagoland. These recent grantees included Loyola University Medical Center, the “market oriented” Mercatus Center of George Mason University, and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

A more notable exception to the focus on Chicago is Brinson’s higher ed science funding, where research grants are regularly awarded across the United States. Over $600,000 in a recent year went to science research.

Within the science research program, there are a few niches funded:

Astrophysics & Cosmology: This is actually two similar subprograms, with the former studying “celestial objects and related phenomena” and the latter focusing on “the origin, structure and space-time relationships of the universe.” Recent grantees in these areas support for a university program in asteroid research, and another for an astronomy and astrophysics fellowship program.

Evolutionary Developmental Biology: This is a combination of “embryology, molecular and population genetics, comparative morphology, paleontology and molecular evolution” that studies the mechanics of evolution and biodiversity. The only grant from one recent year under this focus appears to be for University of Chicago’s Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy.

Geophysics: Broadly speaking, this area refers to “the study of phenomena in and on the Earth and its vicinity,” but Brinson’s funding seems to mainly emphasize the study of volcanoes and seismology.

Medical Research: This program “partner[s] with leading medical research institutions to fund promising studies conducted by junior investigators that have the potential to cultivate new, innovative clinical interventions for chronic conditions as well as highly treatable conditions which negatively impact the productivity of large segments of the population.” The foundation is particularly interested in “areas that improve the quality of life as distinct from solely extending life.” But these grants are made mostly at the request of directors, and the program does not accept inquiries.

Individual awards in science research have generally hovered around $50,000, and typically don't go over $100,000. The foundation tends to support work that is not eligible for government funding, as well as work being investigated by early-career scientists.

It's worth mentioning that the foundation is a family affair. The board consists of Gary Brinson, his wife Suzann Brinson, their two daughters Monique and Tally, and sons-in-law Tom Demery and Andrew Melone. They do, however, employ a staff of four, led by James D. Parsons.

The foundation is pretty stringent when it comes to where and how much it gives. Giving is meted out carefully, in part due to the foundation’s policy by which “new grants will be made only as existing grants are transitioned from our portfolio and our financial resources permit.”

That said, the foundation undergoes an occasional review process to make sure grants align well with the directors’ priorities. It continues to refine those priorities, so there is always the possibility that new organizations may be able to work their way in. Current grants are available for review on the foundation’s web site.

While the Brinson Foundation doesn't accept unsolicited proposals, there is an online form to determine if a group qualifies for consideration. Inquiries are accepted year-round; check the calendar to see the schedule for awards.  

You can also contact Brinson’s staff at mail@brinsonfoundation.org or by phone at (312) 799-4500 with general inquiries.

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