by Mary Beth Smetzer
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter

(Published July 2, 2006)

A sentence at the top of the Rasmuson Foundation’s Web site says it all.“Rasmuson Foundation is a catalyst to promote a better life for Alaskans.” It’s a philosophy and charge that has been carried down to the third- and fourth-generation descendants of Swedish immigrants Edward Anton and Jenny Rasmuson.

Jenny started the philanthropic foundation in 1955, with an initial endowment of $3,000, in memory of her husband, E.A., an Alaska missionary in the early 1900s and teacher turned banker. Her son, Elmer, was the foundation’s guiding force until his death in 2000. The foundation’s first gift was $125 for a film projector given to a Presbyterian church in Wasilla. Today, foundation assets total more than half a billion dollars. The Rasmuson Foundation predates the Alaska Constitutional Convention by a mere two weeks, holding its first meeting just below the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus at College.

Last week, for the second time in its 50-year history, Rasmuson Foundation board members met again in Fairbanks for a golden anniversary celebration meriting a three-mayor proclamation and a slide presentation of the foundation’s history by University of Alaska history Professor Terrence Cole. “He’s the one person who knows my family better than I do,” joked Ed Rasmuson, Elmer’s son and board chairman, before settling back to watch and listen as Cole recounted the times, circumstances and strong, determined character of Ed’s forebears. The early Rasmusons recognized the “age-old Alaska” dilemma, Cole said, which was put in simple terms in the 1940s by Alaska Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening: “Too much going out. Not enough staying here.” And the Rasmusons and their descendants have been working ever since to reverse the tide. “It’s about Alaskans helping Alaskans,” said Nadine Hargesheimer, Fairbanks’ representative on the 12-member trustee board, reiterating Elmer’s favorite description of the foundation’s focus.

Elmer followed in E.A.’s footsteps as president of the family-controlled National Bank of Alaska, and oversaw his mother, Jenny’s, initial endowment, informally administering it out of his Anchorage office. The foundation’s assets increased substantially following Jenny’s death in the late 1960s, but Elmer didn’t bother with a letterhead or professional staff until 1995. A few years before his death, Elmer and Ed began making plans to sell the bank, which ultimately was bought by Wells Fargo. With the support of his three children, Elmer decided to bequeath his interest of $450 million to the family foundation, ballooning its assets from $9 million in 1999 to half a billion dollars once the estate was settled three years after Elmer’s death at age 91 in December 2000. Each year since 2002, the foundation has given out $20 million to $30 million to Alaska non-profit organizations, artists and communities, with only a few exceptions.

Rasmuson Foundation grants vary dramatically in size. The two largest awards were for $5 million apiece. One went to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and the other for the revitalization of the Mountain View neighborhood in Anchorage. Of the $105 million in grants dispersed since the foundation’s 1955 birth, approximately $6.5 has gone toward projects outside the state that are related to Alaska people or cultures in some way. In the past four years, Fairbanks has received $7.5 to $10 million in Rasmuson grants to 160 different entities, Ed said, adding, “And that doesn’t include Dad’s $20 million to the university” in 2000.

Since Elmer’s bequest, the foundation staff has increased in size. According to Ed, the foundation’s average earnings annually yield 9 to 10 percent in revenues and the legally required 5 percent of that total is distributed to qualified applicants. But don’t think the foundation freely scatters greenbacks around like confetti. The family’s long banking history is evident. As Ed notes several times over in his 2006 annual letter to Alaskans on the foundation’s Web site, “All successful business bankers and venture capitalists want the principals in any business transaction to have ’some skin in the game’ prior to investing themselves.”

The same holds true for Rasmuson Foundation applicants. The foundation expects all board members of an organization requesting grant money to have made an upfront financial gift of their own that “is meaningful and significant by their own standard.” The Resource Center for Parents and Children and the Presbyterian Hospitality House are recent recipients of Rasmuson grants–a furniture and fixture budget for the former and facility upgrades for the latter. “They’re not program funders,they are bricks and mortar,” said Coleen Turner, RCPC executive director. In keeping with Rasmuson policy, RCPC, which focuses on eliminating child abuse and neglect, is in the process of raising $25,000 in a private matching funds campaign.

Currently the Rasmuson Foundation board is made up of a dozen trustees, seven of whom are Rasmuson family members. In addition to Ed and his wife, board vice chair Cathryn Rasmuson, family members include Elmer’s widow, Mary Louise; Ed’s two younger sisters, Lile Rasmuson Gibbons and Judy Rasmuson; and the newest–fourth-generation Rasmuson members–Ed’s daughter, Natasha von Imhof, and Lile’s son, Adam Gibbons. In lieu of a salary, foundation trustees opted for annual personal discretionary funds to hand out individually with board approval. Any personal charitable contributions also are matched two to one by the foundation.

Less than a year and a half ago, Hargesheimer gave $10,000 to the Literacy Council of Alaska. “They were having a hard time with funding, and I told them I wanted them to use the money to help themselves,” Hargesheimer said. The Literacy Council used the money to open a used book store and the seed money took off like corn in Iowa in July. “That was one of the final deciding factors in making the move over here (Gaffney Street) and doing the bookstore,” said Mike Donaldson, LCA executive director. “Nadine was hoping we could leverage that into a source of funding, and we have. We have quadrupled the investment. We are very pleased.” Hargesheimer is as well. “The foundation gives me the opportunity to change things for the better,” she said. “Every single meeting, I learn something I didn’t know before.” And the biggest lesson, Hargesheimer said, is understanding the value of not just giving out Christmas presents, but “giving out something sustainable that will make a difference.”

Reprinted with permission from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.