"Philanthropist to Philanthropist" featuring Dick Snowdon and Elizabeth Snowdon
by Katy Moore, Director of Member Services, Washington Grantmakers April, 2011
For forty years, the Hill-Snowdon Foundation was a typical family foundation, coming together over the holidays to approve grants recommended by family members. The story that follows – recounted by Dick Snowdon and his daughter, Elizabeth Snowdon, at last week’s Philanthropist to Philanthropist lunch – tells of the remarkable transformation from kitchen table check-writing to nationally-known leadership in social justice.
Dick Snowdon Secretary/Treasurer
Elizabeth Snowdon President
History Founded in 1959 by Arthur B. Hill, the Hill-Snowdon Foundation began with several thousand dollars in Johnson & Johnson stock and three trustees: Arthur, his wife Marguerite, and their daughter, Lee. As the founders passed away, the third generation joined the board, including Lee’s son, Dick Snowdon.
In 1993, Lee died leaving part of her estate to the foundation. At the same time, the value of J&J stock rose sharply. These two events increased the foundation’s assets from $1.1 million to $8.9 million. It was during this time that the board expanded to incorporate the fourth generation – Dick’s children: Andrew, Elizabeth, and Ashley, at the time 24, 21, and 16 years old, respectively. According to Dick, the board understood that in order for their growing multi-generational model to work, all trustees would need to participate as equals. And they did. In fact, a few years later, Ashley Snowdon then the youngest trustee at the age of 27, would become president of the foundation. Speaking as a father and a trustee Dick said, “I’m so proud to have my children participate as adults in the foundation, as equals in the conversation. Their energy, expertise, and professionalism are major factors in how we arrived where we are today.”
Finding Focus In the mid-nineties, as the foundation’s assets grew, so too did the board’s feeling of responsibility and stewardship. With roughly $2 million a year to invest in the community, they knew they would need outside help to narrow their focus and manage their grantmaking. Luckily, they found the Tides Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that provides grants management, donor education, and other services to philanthropists.
Through an intensive retreat, Tides helped the family identify their shared values and ultimately, to agree upon the shared focus of “youth” – especially young people of color living in poverty. For the two years following the retreat, the foundation worked with Tides to identify and fund direct-service programs serving at-risk youth.
The Search for Impact As the family’s knowledge deepened so did its tolerance for risk and its desire for greater impact. Accordingly, the foundation began exploring opportunities to support social change projects that would address a problem’s root causes rather than its symptoms.
Elizabeth recalled one of her early “ah ha” moments: “I realized that funding direct service was like putting a seed in the ground, pouring water on it, giving it sunshine and providing what it needs to grow. Social change funding is like asking the question: ‘Why didn’t the seed have those necessities to begin with?’”
Not all of the trustees came around to this way of thinking at the same time or with the same initial enthusiasm. According to Elizabeth, “taking on the root causes of social and economic injustice was intimidating and often uncomfortable. And the idea that our relatively small amount of money could help change the system seemed impossible.”
Community Organizing Eventually, the board agreed to experiment with the concept, then new to them, of “youth organizing.” The basic premise of this concept (and, more broadly, community organizing which the foundation would expand into later) is that the people who are most affected by a problem should take action and have a say in the solution. This shift in grantmaking strategy was also a shift in the trustees’ thinking. For example, prevention of violence and teen pregnancy are activities that address the symptoms of a problem. In youth organizing, young people are treated as potential leaders who, with the right training, are able to advocate for systemic change of policies and institutions.
Through the years, the Hill-Snowdon Foundation has supported efforts for laborers to fight for fair wages, tenants to band together to prevent condo conversions, and mothers coming together to demand maternity leave. Even after years of funding organizing, Dick relayed that the trustees “continue to be struck by the unprecedented levels of community change that can be achieved through community organizing as well as the powerful personal growth and development of the organizing participants.”
Becoming a Staffed Foundation In 2004, the foundation hired its first staff, Executive Director Nat Chioke Williams, whose vision and expertise, coupled with the trustees’ willingness to take risks, has evolved the foundation into a national leader in social justice philanthropy. According to Dick, this leadership position was sought by the trustees as it allows them to leverage their dollars and attract additional funding for their grantees: “When other funders see who we’re funding, they use it as a gauge for where their own grants might best be used.”
According to Dick Snowdon, they allow the Hill-Snowdon Foundation to be a “big fish.”
About the Series WRAG’s “Philanthropist to Philanthropist” luncheons are exclusively for family philanthropists across the metropolitan region. These invitation-only events are limited to 25 participants and provide a rare opportunity for philanthropists to openly share their giving challenges, successes, and failures, and learn from their peers. Each interview-style session is moderated by Patty Alper of the Alper Family Foundation and former host of the radio show “For Love or Money.” For more information on the series, contact Katy Moore at 202-939-3436 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This series made possible by the support of
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