Off the Beaten Path, Big Research Money Flows from a Local Funder

Downtown san antonio. photo:  Sean Pavone/shutterstock

Downtown san antonio. photo:  Sean Pavone/shutterstock

The Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund looks at first glance to be your typical wealthy locals’ foundation—the family name, plus regular giving to health and social services in its home of San Antonio.

But the Voelcker Fund’s got a couple of interesting twists. For one, it has a very defined mission for a small local funder, with a strong emphasis on medical research. The fund recently awarded a combined $2.3 million to UT Health San Antonio, in the form of five young investigator awards and a $75,000 grant for a pilot study on anti-cancer drugs. All of the grants go toward either cancer or heart disease research. 

Also, Voelcker is not actually a family foundation, as much of its endowment comes from the sale of a large chunk of farmland—owned by the Voelckers until Minnie passed away in 2000—to the City of San Antonio. The city purchased the 311 acres in stages for a combined $48 million, including a bond package, to turn the land into a park in northern San Antonio. 

Rather than just donate the land to the city, the planners used money from the sale to support a private foundation operating in perpetuity, with an endowment of $67 million as of 2016. The fund also makes annual grants to support operations of the park that was created as a result. 

Trustees of the fund include Minnie Voelcker’s former attorney, and a local developer who helped hammer out the deal. With a third trustee, they make the calls on funding decisions, along with a two-person Medical Advisory Committee.

Related: The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

That’s a unique take on city-philanthropy team-ups in the name of green spaces, but let’s also take a closer look at its research funding. 

The biggest winner by far has been UT Health San Antonio, a research and teaching hospital in the University of Texas system. The fund has backed the institution to conduct research in a variety of ways, including funds to support a Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy, research projects, and several individual investigator grants. 

One of the funder’s main initiatives is its Young Investigator Awards, which give $450,000 each to scientists who are early in their careers and serve as faculty at one of five Texas institutions. UT Health faculty have landed most of the awards. All told, UT Health San Antonio has received more than $21 million since 2007.

Another big grantee has been University of Texas San Antonio. In 2012, the foundation gave a $1 million grant to the school, pushing it past the $100 million mark on its first ever capital campaign (UTSA would pass the $200 million mark by the end of the campaign).

Academic institutions all over the country have undertaken similar high-dollar capital campaigns, as state appropriations for universities have failed to keep up. The UT system overall gets about 13 percent of its funding from the state these days. 

While elite universities like Harvard and Stanford have received the most attention surrounding this influx of donations, academic institutions across the U.S. are drawing upon pockets of private wealth to bolster their financial stability and research agendas. San Antonio—which has historically been off the beaten path for large-scale philanthropy—is just one of many regional cities where new grant dollars are flowing.