What Is the Brinson Foundation up to Lately? More Investments in Chicago, But a Limit on New Grants

The Shedd Aquarium is among the foundation's grantees. photo: Henryk Sadura/shutterstock

The Shedd Aquarium is among the foundation's grantees. photo: Henryk Sadura/shutterstock

The Brinson Foundation was founded by a living legend of the investment field, Gary Brinson, when he retired in 2000. Grantmaking started in 2001. The foundation generally focuses its giving on education, science, and, less often, medical research. Local cultural organizations and museums in Chicago, where this funder is based, were also favored in 2017.

The Brinson Foundation made 155 grants that totaled about $4.5 million in 2017. Education received the most money, getting 41 percent of the funds. Financial literacy; health care career development; high school and college access; liberty, citizenship, and free enterprise; literacy; STEM education; and student health are the foundation’s established areas of concentration in education. Overlap between its core interests in science and medicine, as well as Brinson’s financial background, are obvious here. Free enterprise is celebrated among the foundation’s core beliefs.

“Programs that rely on the incentives of the free enterprise system provide significant potential for long-term success and sustainability and have many advantages over government programs,” its site states.

This commitment to capitalism is not surprising, given Brinson’s long and successful career as an investment manager, which included serving as chief investment officer of the First National Bank of Chicago, founding Brinson Partners Inc. (now UBS Global Asset Management), and managing over $1 trillion in assets at one point.

The Brinson Foundation has dedicated much of its education-focused giving in Chicago, with some grantees throughout the U.S.; last year, institutions in Virginia, New York, and California were also included. Many of the 2017 education awards were $25,000 for either programmatic or general support and ranged from $10,000 for the Chicago Community Foundation to $70,000 for Window to the World Communications, Inc., which broadcasts NOVA locally.

About 32 percent of this funder’s gifts went to what it calls "endorsements" grants, which provide core operating support “to a limited number of leading institutions selected by the Foundation’s Directors,” including local cultural, scientific, and medical organizations. These include the Joffrey Ballet, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, along with the University of Chicago Medicine and the Museum of Science and Industry, among others.

A total of 19.8 percent went to scientific research. The Brinson Foundation directs this branch of giving to “programs on the cutting edge of research” in these fields: astrophysics, cosmology, evolutionary developmental biology, and geophysics. While its scientific awards are usually more geographically spread out than those for education, one-third still went to Chicago organizations. Some of the diverse recent research topics are asteroids, earthquakes, theoretical gravitational waves, and breast cancer. Board special interest grants and other grants made up the rest of this foundations’ 2017 awards. Special interests included a wildlife art museum and local recycling program, while many of the organizations in the “other” category are grantmaking networks, associations, and centers.

The Brinson Foundation typically make single-year grants that can be renewed at the board’s discretion.

“At present, it is not uncommon for our Board to approve renewals of grants for programs that match our evolving funding interests and guidelines,” the funder’s site explains.

It accepts unsolicited grantseeker inquiries—a pre-application screening step—in education and scientific research, but not endorsement or medical research, year-round. However, new potential grantees should be aware that new funding is only being made available as established grantees phase out.

According to a December 2017 update, a “no new net grants” policy remains in effect. So, no new grants are made unless existing grants are transitioned out, and as its “financial resources permit.”

“This policy along with the potential for volatility in the investment markets make it unlikely that we will add a meaningful number of new grantees to our grant portfolio in the near future,” it states.