Most foundations giving quietly in Utah

Jan 9 2011 - 7:50pm

OGDEN -- The Walmart Corporation got national publicity for giving more than $1 million to help hunger in Utah, including $100,000 in Weber County, but there are foundations in Utah that give more than that every year and nobody notices.

Several have done so even though the stock market crash of 2008 devastated their portfolios.

When the market lost 40 percent of its value in the last three months of 2008, it hit private foundations hard and, in turn, charities that depend on foundation gifts.

They are only this year beginning to recover.

For example, the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Foundation was distributing more than $25 million in 2008, based on the value of its portfolio in 2007 of close to $500 million.

While a spokeswoman for the foundation was reluctant to put a hard number on the foundation's portfolio losses, the impact was felt.

"All foundations, if you look up how we work, what we give away is based on the value of our holdings," said Toni Lehtinen. "So, obviously, that fluctuates, so if it's (the portfolio) worth less, we give away less."

But not always.

Alan Hall, who formed his family foundation after selling the MarketStar company, said he and his wife, Jeanne, made a conscious decision to keep their donation level up even as the value of the portfolio went down.

It meant dipping into the principal, he said, but "I think we all took a deep breath, and it was one of those profound moments, but some charities have to be sustained regardless."

Private foundations are pools of money set up by individuals or corporations to give away money.

Until the market crash, the top 20 individual foundations in the state were giving more than $50 million a year to Utah's hundreds of charitable institutions.

The Alan and Jeanne Hall Foundation gives about $1 million a year to charitable organizations, mostly in Weber County but also elsewhere in Utah.

The list of recipients of the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Foundation donations is a Who's Who of every entity in Utah that does something for someone else.

In the last year its records are public, it was giving $65,000 a year to Your Community Connection, $275,000 to Weber State University, $15,000 to the Ogden Weber Applied Technology College, and many more.

Foundations are required by law to give away 5 percent of their portfolio value every year. Rick Horne, executive director of the R. Harold Burton Foundation in Salt Lake City, said the market crash had a huge impact on foundations' ability to give.

Foundations determine their worth by taking their portfolio's value each month of the year, adding those up and dividing by 12, he said.

Five percent of that average is what they give the following year.

For that reason, 2009 wasn't deeply affected by the market nosedive in late 2008, as the average included nine months when the market was still high.

"In 2009, when we were distributing, people said things aren't that bad, because people got relative amounts to what they had the previous year," he said.

But the market stayed down most of 2009, "so 2010 was the year you saw the real impact. That's quite a lag time, and organizations probably weren't as prepared as they should have been for that."

The R. Harold Burton Foundation supports arts, education and programs for the poor. Horne said the amount the foundation distributed dropped from $1.7 million in 2006 to $961,000 in 2010. Because the markets were up most of 2010, he said, the 2011 distribution should be better.

Horne said foundation directors know that, in hard times, social services have greater demand. They've shifted away from arts and similar programs and concentrated more on social agencies.

Alan Hall said his family's foundation followed a similar principal with one exception: They didn't reduce what they paid out.

They didn't expand, and they didn't add any new charities, but they didn't cut and they concentrated more on agencies helping the poor.

Jeanne Hall said the foundation's gifts actually rose slightly, mostly because she and Alan decided to give more, both from the foundation and out of their own pockets.

Alan Hall said that means using some of the principal, not just interest, which is a dangerous course because it's like a farmer who eats his seed corn.

"Now things have turned a little bit so, in some ways most of us are back to 75-80 percent of what we were before the crash," he said. "We're still not welcoming new requests; we're still sustaining those who we think are the most needful."

He said the process can be hard. The foundation has to weed out those agencies that, while worthy, don't help the most.

"It's generally about 30 different institutions we give money to," he said. "We have money going to places where we can make a really big difference.

"We like Catholic Community Services a lot, we like Midtown Clinic a lot. Those guys serve 60-plus thousand a year. We're getting bang for our buck in those places."

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