When Texas billionaire Harold Simmons died in 2013, it was a sad day for Republican and conservative fundraisers. Simmons was one of the biggest political donors on the right, giving tens of millions of dollars in recent years and, among other things, backing the notorious "Swift Boat" ads that attacked John Kerry. During the 2012 election cycle, Simmons was the second largest individual donor in the country, after Sheldon Adelson, contributing a total of $27 million.
That gravy train came to end with Simmons' death, and now the big question is this: What portion of the $8 billion fortune he left behind will go to philanthropy, and what causes will that money support?
The short answer is that we don't know how much of the Simmons fortune will be given away. But we do know that Simmons' philanthropic legacy will look nothing like his political legacy. That's because the two of his daughters in charge of that money both lean in a liberal direction. Of course, this is a familiar trajectory for family wealth. While hard-driving businessmen often have conservative views, their children—raised in comfort and educated at elite schools—may well have a more liberal outlook.
First, some backstory. In 1988, Harold Simmons created a foundation with money from his Cortran Corporation, a family trust tangled in a web of interlinked ownerships and investment trades. Contran Corporation has held major stock in publicly traded companies like Valhi Inc., NL Industries Inc., Kronos Worldwide Inc. and CompX International Inc.
After Simmons died in 2013, he willed most of his $8 billion fortune to two of his daughters, the ones who today control the Harold Simmons Foundation. Lisa K. Simmons has been the foundation president since the beginning, and Serena Simmons Connelly serves as the current director of philanthropy. It's not known how much of the Simmons fortune went to estate taxes or how much will eventually find its way into the foundation, and when. But Simmons did say in his Giving Pledge letter that he had established trusts to carry out his giving after his death and that more than 50 percent of his wealth would go to philanthropy. So it may well be that the Simmons Foundation will eventually rank among the larger foundations in the United States.
While details on the money are sketchy, what we do know is that neither of the Simmons' daughters share their father's worldview, and that the foundation has backed a number of liberal causes in recent years.
For example, Planned Parenthood Federation of America was a major grantee in 2013, as was Planned Parenthood of North Texas. Money also went to support gun safety efforts, work to abolish the death penalty in Texas, and organizing efforts by low-income community and tenant groups. As well, the foundation made a $500,000 commitment to Public Campaign in 2012, a group working to get money out of politics.
Empowering women is a major priority of the foundation, although it doesn't say much about that on its website. But this funder made a $5 million commitment to the Dallas Women's Foundation in 2013 for its work to build economic security among women in North Texas. The foundation has also supported a variety of other women's groups, working both domestically and globally.
On the global front, the Simmons sisters are clearly tapped into the networks of funders and nonprofits looking to empower women in developing countries. For example, money has gone to the Global Fund for Women, the Fistula Foundation, and the Hunt Alternatives Fund.
Beyond that, the foundation is deeply committed to addressing poverty and healthcare equity in the Dallas area.
The largest chunk of Simmons Foundation grantmaking (approximately 57 percent) is dedicated to health and medical causes, such as the SpiritHorse Therapeutic Center, Bryan’s House, and Healing Hands Ministries. The foundation recently made headlines for its major donation to the new Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.
Education and social welfare programs around town also see a fair amount of Simmons support each year. The East Dallas Community School, the Montessori Institute of North Texas, and Uplift Education have been recent grantees, as well as Human Rights Initiative of North Texas and the local Habitat for Humanity and YMCA on the social service side. Civic improvement, youth, and arts & culture grants aren’t uncommon, but a bit more few and far between.
Simmons grantmaking is generally restricted to operating expenses, capital needs, and special projects. And first-time grantees usually see about $5,000 to $20,000. In 2013, the foundation reported around $81 million in assets and distributed about $31 million.
So when will more of the billions that Harold Simmons left behind start to find its way to the foundation? That remains to be seen. But we're betting that much bigger money will start to flow from this outfit in coming years and, as that happens, it wouldn't be surprising to see more funds going to national and global nonprofits, especially those working to empower women.
The best way to get in touch with the foundation staff is to fill out the online contact form. Fortunately for grantseekers, the Harold Simmons Foundation does accept unsolicited grant requests. Requests must be sent via mail, and you can expect to wait a month or two for a response back.