Board Meetings Mean Family Time

Generation X cousins raised to give back

Natasha von Imhof connects with her cousins, Jay and Adam Gibbons, during a board visit in 2017 to the Southwestern Alaska community of Oscarville.

Meet Rasmuson Foundation’s Generation X. There’s Natasha von Imhof, born and raised in Alaska, a state senator and treasurer of the Foundation board; and brothers Adam and Jay Gibbons, who grew up in Connecticut and deepened connection to Alaska through summer visits and jobs at the family-owned National Bank of Alaska.

Growing up, this generation didn’t know much about Rasmuson Foundation. It was low-key, giving out thousands, not millions, in grant awards a year. Now the Foundation is Alaska’s biggest private funder. And they are helping to lead it. Will their children one day do the same?

The cousins began to tune in when their grandfather, Elmer Rasmuson, gave away $90 million for his 90th birthday, including $40 million to Rasmuson Foundation. “There was definitely an appreciation that the Foundation was going to become something big and different and new,” Adam says.

The Gibbons brothers remember remarkable Alaska summers that involved fishing and hunting as well as work in the bank. Ed Rasmuson, their uncle and dad of Natasha, became like a second father. The parents wanted to imprint Alaska. Even after the summer visits, they kept the cousins connected.

“And so now several of us are very close, and we are making an effort to get our children together, the second cousins,” Natasha says. “Those are bonds that we developed a decade and a half ago, and we’re continuing to realize the importance of those.”

Rasmuson Foundation board members and CEO and President Diane Kaplan gather in Yakutat in June 2015 for the raising of this totem pole, commissioned by the Foundation to mark its 60th anniversary as well as the family’s roots in Yakutat. From left: Kaplan and then-board members Jeff Cook, Kris Norosz, Adam Gibbons, Natasha von Imhof (standing), Laura Emerson, Cathy Rasmuson, Judy Rasmuson, Lile Gibbons, Jay Gibbons, Ed Rasmuson, Dr. Matt Hirschfeld, Aaron Schutt, Linda Leary and Anthony Mallott. (Photo by Robert Johnson)

There aren’t too many organizations where meetings are planned around family weddings, Aunt Judy is in the boardroom, and your parents seek advice on multi-million-dollar investments.

Adam, Jay and Natasha all ended up in finance. Adam works for Latash Inc., the Alaska-based, family-owned firm that provides investment advice to the family and the Foundation. It’s named after Natasha and her sister, Laura. Natasha is an investor and co-owner. Jay is founder and managing partner of an investment management firm in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Celebrations and ribbon cuttings, site visits to grantees and community receptions — a drum beat of exposure to nonprofit work built up over time for the cousins. In 2005, Natasha and Adam were brought on the board; Jay joined a decade later.

Twice a year they gather in Alaska with parents, aunts and uncles for family time — and Rasmuson Foundation board meetings. Facing one another around a circular table, the board discusses Foundation strategy, investments, finance, governance and grantmaking. The board looks at “all four corners of the state to make it a productive, safe and happy place to live,” Natasha says. She finds much to be proud of: libraries and clinics, housing and playgrounds, support for literacy, for healthy living through Recover Alaska. And the arts remain central, even when times are hard. Adam still remembers how, for his 90th birthday, Elmer gave more money to the Anchorage Museum than the Foundation.

Natasha von Imhof, Foundation board member and Alaska state senator, is seen in November 2019 at a community luncheon with the board at the Mat-Su Health Foundation. (Photo by Stephen Nowers)

“You know, most of the time it’s good,” Natasha says. “I think we’re respectful at the table.” She pauses. There’s also this. “Your dad remembers you as a 14-year-old, and so when you’re a 44-year-old woman trying to make a point, he sometimes just sits there and thinks that you have braces on your teeth and can’t understand.”

Mainly, she says, they see each other in a new light “outside of Mom or Dad or Aunt Judy or Aunt Lile.” After a visit to a rural community, they ask each other, “ ‘well, what did you think about that water system? Well, what did you think about that new pool in Bethel?’ We see each other all of a sudden as peers and professionals. And I think that’s really enhanced the relationship.”

The Foundation’s reach has been amplified through the Grantmaker’s Tour of Alaska, an annual weeklong effort to show Outside grantmakers the challenges and successes of Alaska communities off and on the road system, places many Alaskans never see. There’s nothing else like it in the country. The tour brings huge benefits to the state, Adam says.

And the board itself is remarkable, Adam says, strengthened by community members from diverse sectors, philosophies and regions. “They know who the players are and what the real issues are on the ground in different communities. So yes, it’s a family foundation but it’s a really good one because of the non-family members that sit around that board table.”

From whatever background, next generation board members need to be vigilant, Adam says. Once-strong organizations “may have strategy drift, may have deteriorating leadership.” Not all nonprofits will be needed forever.

Adam and Jay Gibbons talk in 2017 with community members in Bethel, a hub community in Southwestern Alaska that the board visited as part of its biannual meeting.

“Organizations need to be sustainable and operational on their own, present circumstances excluded,” Jay says, noting the COVID-19 emergency. For instance, he has been impressed by the approach of grantee Spruce Root, which helps Southeast Alaska communities by nurturing small businesses like cafes, shops and wild food producers.

The State of Alaska has been a key partner on projects, but its capital budget has dried up. The Foundation may need to look for new partners or take on more risk itself, Natasha says. Meanwhile the state’s overall economy — low oil prices, declining production, no general statewide tax and most recently coronavirus-sparked high unemployment — gnaws at Adam. “I’m worried about Alaska,” he says. The Foundation itself remains strong, Natasha says. “We’re pretty clear in our direction. I’m actually pretty optimistic.”

Over the next five to 10 years, change will come. Initiatives that Elmer and his mother, Jenny Rasmuson, never imagined could become reality under the Foundation’s open framework. Maybe climate change, Adam says. Maybe online education, Natasha says. Just keep paying it forward, like Elmer wanted, Jay says.

Jay Gibbons, Nicholas von Imhof, Natasha von Imhof and Adam Gibbons enjoy Anchorage’s Hillside Park in November 2017. Nicholas, part of the family’s upcoming generation, graduated from an Anchorage high school in 2020.

Will their children one day take over the Foundation board? That’s the hope. Adam, Jay and Natasha say it starts with grounding in values, with teaching how to give back. “We better make sure there’s an Uncle Ed in every generation to get people excited about being in Alaska,” Adam notes. Some of his and Jay’s kids talk about living here one day. The von Imhof children grew up hearing about the impacts and seeing the family’s name on buildings. “We’re going to try to pass on stories and intentions and legacies,” Natasha says.

“I don’t think that our grandfather and our great grandmother in their wildest dreams could have envisioned what the Foundation would do in terms of bringing the family together,” Adam says, “not just to recreate, but to also gather around something that’s important beyond the family.”