Hank and Wendy Paulson’s Bobolink Foundation has long been a player in land and wildlife protection, giving nationwide with a particular emphasis on birds. But their largest project to date was a $12 million investment to protect a huge chunk of coastal Georgia. Here’s what the move says about their philanthropy.
When Wendy Paulson first suggested to husband Henry Paulson, former U.S. Treasury Secretary, that they take on the preservation of Cannon’s Point, a 608-acre piece of land on St. Simons Island, he wasn’t convinced. The couple had been vacationing in coastal Georgia for many years, but he questioned whether the cost of land was worth the conservation value.
Eventually, however, he came around and in 2012 the couple put more than $12 million toward a $25 million fundraising effort to purchase the island and run it as a nature preserve. That’s right: around half the total, which more than doubled the foundation’s typical annual giving that year.
You can read all about the Paulsons’ Bobolink Foundation at our IP profile, but this particularly massive investment in land tells us a bit about its giving.
First of all, it shows that Wendy Paulson is calling the shots, but Hank Paulson needs to be on board for large purchases. In a talk they gave at a celebration of the preserve, they explained that for most philanthropy, he doesn’t even consult. But most of the foundation’s individual grants are $200,000 a year or less, with the occasional million-dollar-plus-grant. A $12 million land purchase called for a family meeting.
Second, it demonstrates that the family’s giving is driven by their personal experiences and connections to the outdoors. Wendy Paulson describes the couple’s return visits to the area since 1980, and how moved she was by the Barrier Islands while kayaking off the coast. And much of the foundation’s giving tends to be place-based, or devoted to protection of birds, which both Paulsons, but especially Wendy, is hugely involved in.
Finally, what really convinced the couple to take the plunge in the Georgia purchase was the team and the network of people working on the project in the community. Wendy described how the deal wasn’t sealed until they started having in-person meetings with the St. Simons Land Trust and the community members involved on the ground. Conservation projects simply don't work without that huge local support, they believe.
One thing the grant does not represent is the fact that Bobolink is not the type of foundation typically governed by massive investments. Again, most of their gifts are five- and six-figure, with some groups receiving annual $200,000 grants and others as small as $2,500. So while the foundation is tough to break into, it’s not off limits to small groups or causes if it’s something that can win over Wendy Paulson in particular.