Inside the Beltway, Under the Radar: What's David Wallace Douglas Up To?

David Wallace Douglas has a lot going on. Each year, his D.C.-based foundation gives away millions of dollars to support agricultural, water, biodiversity and other environmental causes. He's been a pioneer on water and sanitation issues. He’s created an advocacy organization to promote and defend U.S. development assistance. His extended family gives away millions more through their own foundations.

Have you heard of this guy? Probably not, which is just what he prefers.

Douglas is the grandson of Iowa legend Henry A. Wallace who, before he went on to become U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Vice-President under Franklin D. Roosevelt, founded in 1926 the first commercial hybrid seed company, the Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company. In 1959, Wallace and his wife, Ilo, started the Wallace Genetic Foundation from Pioneer stock proceeds. Eventually, the foundation passed to Wallace's three children, who split it into three foundations in 1997. Jean Douglas, David's mother, kept Wallace Genetic, while her two brothers, Bob and Henry, founded Wallace Global Fund and Wallace Research Foundation, respectively.

When Jean Douglas died in 2010, David and his two sisters, Joan Murray and Ann Cornell, became the three trustees of Wallace Genetic. The foundation supports environmental causes, the preservation of biodiversity, farmland protection, sustainable agriculture, germplasm (seed) protection, environmental education and more recently, work on water issues, a keen interest of David's.

Wallace Genetic, based in a Massachusetts Ave. office in Washington, D.C., where Douglas grew up, currently has an asset base of about $150 million, which fluctuates based on the stock price of DuPont, which bought Pioneer Hi-Bred in 1999 for $7.7 billion. WGF's annual grants most recently totaled about $8 million. Douglas, a lanky, self-effacing former environmental lawyer who splits his time between D.C. and and Santa Fe, N.M., with his wife, Deborah, developed an ancillary interest in water and founded Waterlines in the 1980s, which has provided technical help and funding for more than 700 rural communities in 12 countries, mainly Kenya and Panama.

“Wallace Genetic generally gives grants in the $25,000 to $50,000 range, although some are larger,” Douglas tells me during an extensive interview. “But the ones I’m tracking are in that range. I try to know the organizations I’m working with. I have a better sense of where a limited amount of funding can help. The role of buttressing and strengthening existing foundations is a key concern of mine.”

In 2013, for example , Wallace Genetic’s grantees included FreshFarm Markets, the Environmental Film Festival; the Jackson Hole Land Trust, National Public Radio, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Slow Food, Georgia Organics, Doctors Without Borders, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Sustainable Harvest International, CATIE in Costa Rica and the Union of Concerned Scientists. A grant was also made to Appalachian Voices of Boone, N.C. to fight mountaintop mining (i.e., strip mining) in West Virginia, a key issue for Ann Douglas and her Cornell Douglas Foundation.

Douglas is also intensely passionate about combating global poverty. 

“We were very conscious growing up of the need to help developing countries,” Douglas says. “Henry Wallace spoke forcefully that the best way for the U.S. to conduct foreign policy is to help developing countries to get out of hunger and poverty. It seems to me that’s what America does best.

“This has carried over to my philanthropic space,” he says.

So out of his work with Waterlines grew Water Advocates, the first full-time, U.S.-based group dedicated to advocacy for safe water and sanitation in developing countries. A second effort is called Advocates for Development Assistance, which promotes the untold success story of U.S. poverty-focused foreign aid. I'll write more on this initiative in a second article about Douglas.