Small Foundations, Big Impacts

Mention private foundations, and those likely to come to mind for most people will be large, high-profile philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Such organizations give hundreds of millions—even billions—of dollars to charitable causes each year.

Focus article photo

"Many smaller foundations recognize that they can have a lot of impact by supporting pilot-type studies," explains DMS researcher James DiRenzo, PhD. (Photo by Jon Gilbert Fox)

But nationwide there are more than 75,000 private foundations, the vast majority of which are small grant-makers with few or no paid staff and whose giving ranges from less than $100,000 to a few million dollars annually.

Despite their small size, the support of such foundations is felt throughout Dartmouth Medical School and Dartmouth-Hitchcock—in education, research, patient care, and community outreach. Though their grants may be relatively small, their impact can be significant.

Effect Is "Huge"

A case in point is the J. T. Tai & Company Foundation. Established in 1983 by the late Jun Tsei Tai, the owner of a real estate management company and an internationally renowned dealer in Asian art, the foundation primarily supports medical education and health care. The Tai Foundation has been a loyal donor to DMS since 1996, providing a total of $595,000 in scholarship aid. "Scholarship gifts are an incredible investment," says G. Dino Koff, DMS's director of financial aid. "Every dollar in scholarship aid lowers a student's loans, and the long-term effect of that is huge, considering the interest that accrues on a loan over 10 or 15 years. Our students are truly grateful."

Many small foundations make a meaningful impact by focusing their philanthropy on a narrow area of interest. Such is the case with the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which targets its giving in New Hampshire's northernmost county, Coos County, and surrounding communities. For the past two and a half years, the Tillotson Fund has supported the North Country Palliative Care Collaboration—a highly successful initiative that is improving palliative care for the region's aging population. Its grants to Dartmouth-Hitchcock, totaling $300,000, are enabling the Section of Palliative Medicine to work with care providers in Littleton, Lancaster, Berlin, and Colebrook, NH, and St. Johnsbury, VT, to strengthen and expand hospice and palliative-care services for rural residents with advanced illness and their families.

In research, small foundations often fill a critically important niche. "Many smaller foundations recognize that they can have a lot of impact by supporting pilot-type studies, where you've got some preliminary results, but you need to generate a lot more data before you can apply for a bigger federal grant," explains James DiRenzo, PhD, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at DMS and scientific director of the Comprehensive Breast Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center. In January, DiRenzo received a $163,000 grant from the Elsa U. Pardee Foundation. This foundation was created in 1944 upon the death of Mrs. Pardee, who provided $1 million through her will "for the promotion of the control and cure of cancer." Sixty-six years later, her initial bequest has provided an astonishing $88 million in grants.

"I think some of the best publications that have come out of our lab have... originated with private foundation money," says DiRenzo. "In my opinion, it's a great return on their investment."

By Kate Villars

This article is reprinted from the Summer 2010 issue of Dartmouth Medicine.

May 21, 2010