By Rosemary Shinohara
Daily News Reporter
(Published December 28, 2003)In the 1980s and ’90s, the Rasmuson Foundation was run by two people: Anchorage banker Ed Rasmuson and his secretary, from a room on the fifth floor of National Bank of Alaska on Northern Lights Boulevard.

Groups seeking money from the foundation, a philanthropic organization focused solely on Alaska, brought over request letters every fall. Then they waited for the foundation to write back.

The foundation gave individual grants averaging less than $5,000. That was still true as recently as 1999, when the foundation handed out a total of $364,404 in grants — enough to help many nonprofits, but an amount dwarfed by grants from the giant oil companies that do business in Alaska.

The money might buy a copier or a new carpet for a nonprofit.

“If you got a letter before Christmas, the answer was yes,” said Diane Kaplan, who now directs the foundation. “If not, it was no. It was a mysterious process.”

Those days of modest giving are past.

During the past three years, the Rasmuson Foundation has burst into public view as the most generous private donor ever in Alaska, handing out annual grants totaling $16.3 million this year for arts and culture, social and community causes. That’s $3 million more than donations this year by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. and Conoco Phillips Alaska combined.

Just as fast, the Rasmuson organization has earned a reputation for attracting Outside foundation money to Alaska and putting together complicated, large projects with corporate donors and government grant-makers that make the dollars go further.

The foundation has become a powerful, statewide force that’s providing money for everything from a forklift for the Fairbanks food bank to a multimillion dollar remake of Mountain View in Anchorage, from library books for Dillingham to renovation of a Sheldon Jackson College building in Sitka. In 2003 alone, the foundation funded more than 170 projects in virtually every corner of Alaska.

“They’re the glue that fills the gaps and pulls us all together,” said Jeff Staser of the Denali Commission, the federal agency created by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens to improve conditions in rural Alaska.

Big Gifts

Two large gifts from Ed Rasmuson’s father, Elmer, made the foundation suddenly a big player. Elmer Rasmuson was the head of National Bank of Alaska for 31 years, and his family owned a majority interest in it.

On his 90th birthday in 1999, Elmer Rasmuson and his wife, Mary Louise, announced the largest philanthropic gift in Alaska history: $50 million for the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and $40 million to the Rasmuson family foundation. That was the first step in a rapid expansion of the foundation.

The next year, 2000, the Rasmuson family sold its interest in NBA to a much larger bank, Wells Fargo, essentially to be able to expand the foundation further, Ed Rasmuson said.

Elmer Rasmuson died later that year and bequeathed nearly all his estate to the foundation. It amounted to more than $400 million worth of Wells Fargo Bank stock.

By next year, the foundation’s assets will total about $500 million, according to Kaplan, the foundation’s president. Ed Rasmuson, 63, who manages the foundation’s investments, said he hopes to see the value reach a billion dollars before he dies.

Ed Rasmuson chairs the 10- to 12-member volunteer foundation board. It includes five family members: Ed’s wife, Cathryn; sisters Lile Gibbons and Judy Rasmuson; and Mary Louise Rasmuson, Elmer’s widow.

The proceeds from Elmer Rasmuson’s estate are being transferred gradually to allow the foundation to more easily absorb them.

But the Rasmuson Foundation, with current assets of about $425 million, has already become the eighth largest foundation in the Pacific Northwest, and the fourth largest family foundation in the region, measured by assets, behind Bill and Melinda Gates of Microsoft with $33 billion; JA and Kathryn Albertson Foundation with $634 million; and the Ford Family Foundation with $465 million, said Jeff Clarke, the Rasmuson Foundation’s chief administrative officer.

By law, to maintain its tax status, the foundation must give away 5 percent of its average assets annually. That will probably be more than $20 million next year, Kaplan said, and is expected to grow even more.

Pro-Development Philosophy

The foundation gives to nonprofit groups for a wide range of social, cultural and community causes and is changing its philosophy to match its growth, Rasmuson said. It used to be limited to capital projects, but it now also pays for operating costs of innovative projects.

“When you see a lot of committed citizens investing their time and money, it means a lot” and makes a donation more likely, Kaplan said.

Rasmuson said the foundation wants to be “pro-development.” Alaska needs to take care of itself through economic development in such areas as tourism, fishing and mining, he said.

So while the foundation supports parks and trails, “we are not going to support any organization that tries to take away the ability of citizens of Alaska to make a living off the land,” he said. Rasmuson is upset at environmental groups that opposed timber sales in Southeast Alaska, for example.

In travels around the state, he said, he’s seen a lot of social ills, such as domestic violence. The foundation, he said, can’t solve them all but can try to eliminate some of them.

He also wants to stimulate the arts and humanities.

The foundation’s reach extends across Alaska.

In Bethel, it is donating $2 million to a regional school that will take teenagers through high school plus college coursework or vocational training. The school will train young people specifically for jobs that are going unfilled in the region in aviation, construction, education and health care. A nine-member partnership called Yuut Elitnaurviat, the People’s Learning Center, is forming it.

Gene Peltola, head of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., has a hand in the project, Kaplan said. She sees him as a dynamic leader, and that’s one reason the foundation bought in.

Golovin, White Mountain and Koyuk each got $71,707 to build health clinics.

Kake got $22,198 for exercise equipment.

The Nome Preschool Association received $10,000 for equipment and furniture.

The foundation donated $22,000 to buy a university student van in Ketchikan.

In Haines, the foundation nurtured along and contributed to a new $2.5 million library that also serves as a community center. Early on, Kaplan visited Haines and guided library supporters in how to get local support and donations from businesses, said library director Ann Myren. When it came time to build, the Rasmuson Foundation gave the first grant, and that encouraged others, including two other Northwest foundations, to give money, Myren said.

In Anchorage, the foundation is putting $5 million into an innovative land trust that will own property in the arts and cultural district under development in Mountain View, one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. A museum, dance company, and the Anchorage Opera are all planning to move there. The arts district is an urban renewal project with support from numerous agencies.

Because a neighborhood-based trust will own the land, if one of the organizations failed, “they couldn’t sell it to a bartending school,” Kaplan said. The arts district will live on.

Elsewhere in town, the foundation is contributing to an addition on an inexpensive motel that houses homeless families, Safe Harbor Inn. It is financing purchase of a park in Geneva Woods, and paying about $450,000 to complete route studies for a proposed extension of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. It is buying a spotting scope and tripod for the Friends of the Eagle River Nature Center.

Outside Connections

In December, the foundation announced two broad initiatives, a $20 million, 10-year boost to the arts statewide and a $485,500 grant to tackle the child welfare system.

The foundation helps nonprofits in other ways too.

Kaplan has made connections with executives at many Outside foundations and lured them to Alaska to visit and then invest.

Susan Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, one of the biggest charitable organizations in America, met Kaplan while Kaplan was fund-raising in New York for the Alaska Native Heritage Center, for which she used to work part-time.

Berresford said, “Stay in touch,” so Kaplan invited her up on a tour, and she agreed.

“I consider her a real mentor,” Kaplan said.

The Rasmuson Foundation sponsors annual tours to introduce Alaska villages and towns to other people giving away money.

Kaplan is widely respected in the field of philanthropy, Berresford said.

“She is knowledgeable about the organizations in the landscape where she works. She understands how nonprofits really work from the other side,” Berresford said.

Kaplan got into the business from the other side; for 11 years, she was president and chief executive of the Alaska Public Radio Network and was among the applicants to the Rasmuson Foundation who waited for a Christmas letter.

“She is very tough-minded about what things cost and how to help people get to where their vision is carrying their part,” Berresford said.

Other Alaska donors say the foundation not only does a good job of identifying solid projects to put money into, it also helps them decide what’s worth supporting.

“We all sit here and get hundreds and hundreds of requests, and you think, ‘Am I really helping,’ ” said Carla Beam, responsible for corporate giving at BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. “They’re able to dig deeper and look at problems and say, OK, what is a logical approach. They’re able to look at what are the best solutions.”

The Denali Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office and other agencies regularly divvy up the costs of a project with the foundation — such as one they called “Code Blue” that is providing $6.4 million in emergency, lifesaving equipment to more than 140 small Alaska communities.

“The foundation is more flexible and better at topping off a project” than government agencies can be, said Staser of the Denali Commission. “And they have great relationships with all the communities. We tap that relationship.”

Foundation’s Future

The foundation was created in 1955 by Elmer Rasmuson and his mother, Jenny. It was meant to honor Jenny Rasmuson’s husband, E.A. Rasmuson, who had immigrated to the United States from Sweden and come to Yakutat to work as a missionary of the Swedish Covenant Church. He and Jenny met there.

E.A. Rasmuson became a lawyer and was an attorney for the Bank of Alaska, founded by a group of New York financiers. He assumed leadership of the bank in 1918. When he died in 1949, he left the bank to his son, Elmer.

Late in Elmer’s own life, he and son Ed talked about what they wanted to do, Ed Rasmuson said in an interview.

That’s when they decided to sell the bank and put money into the foundation.

His role now, Ed said, is to make sure that the generations that include his and his sisters’ children, and their children get involved in the foundation and maintain its philosophy of giving.

“I’d turn over in my grave if the philosophy of the foundation was to do all environmental causes and not do anything for the arts in Alaska,” he said.

Rasmuson and his wife, Cathryn, have made a video about their giving strategies so generations to follow will know.

Reprinted with permission from the Anchorage Daily News.