Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Rasmuson Foundation Completes 11th Grant Maker Tour

Alaska is lucky in many ways, but for those if us who work in nonprofit organizations, our greatest benefit is the leadership of the Rasmuson Foundation in helping to build our sector. We can thank the vision of Elmer Rasmuson and the commitment of his family to Alaska for this support. The Foundation, now over 50 years old, has consistently invested in our communities, even though the amount they had to share before 2002 was more limited.

It was during this time of less financial capacity that Diane Kaplan, then the part-time Executive Director of the Foundation, realized that since funding was limited, they needed to leverage its impact with support from larger foundations outside Alaska. But that in itself was a problem. When she started to contact her colleagues around the country, she found few had received requests from Alaska nonprofits — and fewer understood our unique community needs.

She took that concern to members of the Rasmuson board and suggested they sponsor an educational tour for some of these foundations, with the hope that they might find organizations in Alaska with missions that fit their funding opportunities. The board agreed and encouraged her to proceed. She contacted other local funders — ARCO (now ConocoPhillips), BP, Alaska Railroad, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, National Bank of Alaska (now Wells Fargo), and the United Way of Anchorage — and asked that they all participate in this venture. Not only did they all join the first effort, they continue to be wonderful partners in this endeavor.

The first tour was launched 12 years ago in 1995. Since then, CEOs or senior programs officers have visited Alaska from a broad range of foundations — Paul G. Allen Family Foundations, M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust, The Ford Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Marguerite Casey Foundation, The Charlotte Martin Foundation, and The Open Society Institute. Other diverse funders such as Catholic Campaign for Human Development, First Nations Institute, Fannie Mae, Entertainment Industry Foundation and the Prudential Foundation have also visited our state. In total, almost 100 national foundation leaders have learned about Alaska and many have made significant contributions as a result.

Examples of programs that have gained support through this program include: Dena A’ Coy at Southcentral Foundation, Perseverance Theatre, The Haines Library and even The Foraker Group. Each program and many others can trace significant funding back to the information and insight the national foundations gained from the tour. By a very conservative estimate, contributions to Alaska nonprofits as a result of the tour exceed $50 million. If the whole picture were known, the impact would be much more.

The opportunities presented by the tour have become so well known in the funding world that most participants agree to come even before the formal invitations are complete. Once the final arrangements have been made, they fly to Alaska in late August. They arrive on a Monday, visit Bethel and another village in the Yukon Kuskokwim region, and get to Anchorage in time for a formal dinner. That event takes place at the home of Ed and Cathy Rasmuson and includes event sponsor Wells Fargo, other tour sponsors and community leaders. The next day starts with breakfast at The Anchorage Museum of History and Art, followed by a bus tour to a diverse group of nonprofit programs around Anchorage. Lunch is an opportunity for guests to explore potential collaborations when they meet with local Alaska funders and learn more about our nonprofit sector. That evening, compliments of the Alaska Railroad and ConocoPhillips, guests take a train ride to Indian with Mayor Mark Begich, members of the Anchorage Assembly and about 100 nonprofit representatives from across the state.

On Wednesday the group travels to the North Slope for a tour of Prudhoe Bay, compliments of BP and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. From there they fly to Barrow to see another rural community. On Thursday morning they meet with Senator Ted Stevens and Ed Rasmuson who provide them with a historical and economic perspective of the state. Then they fly to a remote fish camp where they have an opportunity to see Alaska’s “big, wild, life” up close and personal. They get to fish — the silvers are usually running during their visit — and they get to see bears. But this stop is not just for recreation – the foundation representatives continue to meet with nonprofit leaders. During this part of the tour, they are given more time to assimilate what they have learned and ask questions in a relaxed setting. On Friday they come back to Anchorage and meet with other leaders like the Governor or Senator Murkowski. Then, they fly home and rest.

The process for selecting organizations to meet with the foundations is pretty straightforward. Every year the grant makers are asked about their funding interests. The nonprofits that are invited to meet with them represent a cross-section of the sector whose missions match those interests. All the groups selected are held to a strict “no solicitation rule.” They are asked to represent their part of the sector and to educate the foundations on the unique challenges of providing service and strengthening communities in Alaska – but they are not to ask for money.

Every year, when the tour is complete, grant makers are asked to reflect on their experience and offer advice on how to improve it. While they are overwhelmed with the schedule and exhausted when they leave — or they may have stretched their level of comfort by taking a dip in the Beaufort Sea, using an outhouse, fishing next to a bear, or flying in a small plane — most say they will remember the tour as a highlight of their career. Indeed, the 11th tour was just completed and the word from participants was that “we are now ambassadors for Alaska, and its nonprofit sector.” While this is success by any definition, the long-term benefit for all of us is that when we submit proposals to these foundations, someone in the organization will have a deeper understanding of our unique sector and feel inspired to continue a conversation with us.