Raising the Barr: How This Foundation is Going to the Next Level

Do you ever wonder how major legacy foundations are born? OK, probably not. But some of us find such things fascinating. How does a big pile of money earned by a business leader get molded into a professional philanthropic institution designed to spew out grants until the end of time?

Many foundations don’t do a very good job of recording their histories, so decades laterwhen the original founders and even their kids are goneit can be hard to know how a foundation emerged.

Which is why it’s interesting to watch what is happening at the Barr Foundation right now. A place that started as an anonymous giving operation, and then a family foundation, is now maturing under its first president into a more professional outfit set up to exist in perpetuity.

If you’re not from Boston, you probably don’t pay much attention to Barr. If you are from Boston, and raise money for a nonprofit, you might well have dreams about Barr. Or nightmares.

Barr is one of the biggest funders in the city, so its priorities matter a lot to any number of groups. And with the foundation engaged in strategic planning over the past year, this has been a jittery time for Boston nonprofits.

Barr’s new president, Jim Canales, is leading the review. He was hired in 2014 from far outside Boston. One nightmare that’s surely stalked city nonprofit leaders is that Canalesa hotshot tapped to run his second foundation before the age of 50would pull the plug on any number of longtime grantees who don’t fit into some fancy new strategic plan.

Meanwhile, though, I’ve mused about a much rosier scenario: That Canales’ secret mandate is to build a stronger, more professional foundation that can handle a major infusion of new assets from Barr’s benefactors, Amos and Barbara Hostetter. The couple is worth $3 billion and are getting up there in years. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that a big chunk of their money is destined for Barr, creating a much larger foundation that spreads even more grants around Boston. (Barr last reported assets of $1.6 billion.)

Well, today, Barr unveiled the overall results of its strategic plan, in a blog post by Canales, whom I recently spoke with to learn more about where the foundation is going. Here are a few key takeaways from that conversation.

First, as we’ve already reported, Barr is not going to make any seismic changes. The overall theme, here, is that the foundation aims to “serve as both stewards and catalysts.” The foundation will continue to support long-time interests, even as it aims to back some breakthrough work. Specifically, if you were worried that the foundation was going to look beyond Boston, cutting off local grantees as it sought greater glory on the national scene, you can sleep soundly tonight. Barr’s “commitment to Boston won’t diminish in any significant way,” Canales told me. The foundation is also staying with its three core issue areaseducation, arts and creativity, and climate change.

Second, though, Barr will step up its regional funding role. It plans to do more arts grantmaking throughout Massachusetts, and its education work will also look further afield, connecting up with other efforts underway across the state and in New England. Likewise, Barr’s climate program will engage more with regional challenges, “expanding its reach in the Northeast,” according to Canaleseven as it doubles down on key elements of its Boston’s work related to transportation and building resilience.

Third, there will definitely be some pain for existing Barr grantees, mainly in the area of education, which Canales called the “area of biggest transition” as a result of the new plan. Here, Canales said, the foundation “really did take a step back… We wanted to see if there was some particular zone where Barr could have a unique impact.”

While the full details of the foundation’s new education grantmaking are not yet available, it will mark a real departure from the past. A key focus will be ensuring that young people aren’t just ready for college, but also are prepared to thrive in the workplace. Such school-to-career efforts are hot right now, both with private and corporate funders, as we’ve been reporting, and it’s a field Canales knows well from his previous stint at the Irvine Foundation, which focuses its education funding in this area, through its Linked Learning program. If you’re looking for the place where Canales is putting his own stamp on Barr’s priorities, this would seem to be it.

Education isn’t the only area where many details remain to be filled in regarding Barr’s new direction. Canales’ statement today provided just the broad architecture of that new direction. A series of blog posts are still to come that explain how this all translates across Barr’s programs.

As for the billions of dollars the Hostetters are still sitting on, Canales said he doesn’t know anything about that. And probably he doesn’t. But my bet is that the Barr Foundation will be twice the size it is today within a decade.