A Conversation with Curtis Meadows
This year's Distinguished Grantmaker led his family foundation's push toward innovation while honoring donor intent and working to keep the foundation truly all in the family.
After the death of Meadows Foundation's benefactor, oil and gas production magnate Algur Meadows, the foundation's directors selected his nephew, Curtis W. Meadows, Jr., to become the new president. Following several years of part-time work at the foundation, in 1980 he left a thriving tax and estate planning law practice to manage the foundation full-time.
Looking back, Meadows views this decision to devote himself fully to the work of the foundation as an opportunity to honor the legacy of philanthropic tradition and values his uncle left for his family. He insisted in leading the foundation not as a one-man show, but as a collaboration of family members working together to carry out the founder's vision and use his accumulated wealth to benefit the people of Texas.
Since being chartered in 1948, the Dallas-based Meadows Foundation has grown its assets to exceed $700 million and granted more than $320 million throughout Texas to support the arts, education, social concerns, health, and civic and cultural enrichment. Meadows, who retired as president and CEO last July, is now Of Counsel to the Dallas law firm of Thompson and Knight and a consultant on philanthropic matters for individuals, families and foundations.
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When did you first realize there was a Meadows Foundation?
Well, my uncle formed it back in 1948 and he involved the family in it very, very early on.
The foundation was essentially a gift Al Meadows was making to his family on behalf of others, because he was saying to the family, I trust you above all others that I can think of to do this right and appropriately, and do it keeping with my interests and concerns.
After my uncle's death, when the family accepted the legacy of responsibility for governing and administering the foundation he created, I was really kind of overwhelmed with the sense of trust he placed in his family.
When I became president of the foundation I hung my uncle's picture in my office and I got up every morning and looked at that picture and asked the question, are we doing OK? Are we still on track with your values?-because the world has changed and the circumstances are different. I always tried to be accountable to him.
Honoring donor intent is a trustee's first obligation, but it does not exist in a vacuum. It must be considered in the context of the changing times, public expectations and other legal and moral responsibilities that are attendant to the existence of a foundation.
After my uncle's death one of the first things I did was go around the country and look at foundations that had started with the family connection to see those that had sustained it over time and to ask the question, what did they do that made it sustainable?
What I found was that there was a natural evolutionary process away from family involvement that would occur in a family-based foundation if the family didn't work at maintaining a connection through active, direct participation.
How do you keep it from being in-bred?
It is a great fallacy to believe that families--because they are family--are all going to be cookie cutter replicas of the same mentality. They aren't--particularly in a large family, scattered all over the United States, as we are.
So, there are very diverse views and interests plus an accumulation of different life experiences within the family, but what united us as a family were the commonly held values such as responsibility, respect, caring, fairness and a spiritual faith--not necessarily by denominations, though--but by a belief in the role of a supreme being in our lives.
The blood is why we are genetically related. The values we share make us a family.
But we realized that our life experience didn't prepare us to make judgments about all that was needed in terms of grantmaking without help from others who had gone through experiences different from ours.
Once we decided upon an area of interest, then we would try to bring in people that had extensive experience in that kind of work to educate us, to help us look at what were successful models and to try and find those models that worked as we went about doing the grantmaking. And, so, that was one way to bring into the family a lifetime of experiences and learning that we needed to deal and cope with unfamiliar issues and solutions.
I think that you just have to look for people with experience, integrity and a proven track record. What you're really looking for are insights that you don't have and some sense that what they're offering you is going to be useful and appropriate.
You used, I understand, a business consultant to develop a succession plan and evaluate the operation. Did that turn out to be a good experience?
It was a defining experience. He helped us recognize some of the family dynamics issues that go on in family relationships.
The consultant made us realize that, to be successful as a family foundation, we had to do some things that made us successful as a family. That moment of clarity caused us to ask questions about why we were a family. Why did we care about being together as a family? I say to people all the time, "You inherit a family. You don't get to choose them."
I've also said that a family's dysfunction or inability to get along with one another should not hold a foundation hostage because there is a larger public responsibility to fulfill, a mandate, a license and an expectation that government has given to this process of giving.
And we also began to realize we had to prepare a whole new generation for future trusteeship. This wasn't something you just did overnight. It was something that you really worked on over a number of years, making sure that the heritage is documented and built up and transferred, that children hear from their parents why they did what they did and why it was important to them. So, that even if later on they choose to operate the foundation differently, they would have the legacy and history of the past work and traditions to consider as they made decisions about future activities.
How do you keep consultants from thinking that they have somehow suddenly been made trustees and directors?
It's a question of clarifying who is the final decision maker. In the case of an architect, for example, the early question that has to be asked is: Whose building or house is this? Is it the architect's or is it yours?
If you defer to the architect, it will be his house. He may build you a wonderful house, but it will never be yours. It will be his. So you say to the architect, I want to work with you, I want to be a part of this, there are things about it I don't know and I need your help to do that. Then you use the best things the architect has to give, and keep yourself and your interests involved with it. And, so, the house takes on a whole intellectual and emotional involvement process for you, a whole personally invested meaning for you.
And that's very much like grantmaking and a consultant. If the consultant does the work for me, I may feel some satisfaction that I hired good people, but it still is remote from my emotions, my participation, my sense of making a difference in what's happened.
I am an enormous believer that if philanthropy is nothing else, at its purest core it is an extension between human beings of love, compassion and understanding and it is a reaching out that shouldn't be blocked by anyone in its finest expression. To me, it is at the heart of bonding and uniting people to each other.
If it becomes an analytical, nonemotional, noninvolved, non-expression of a values process, philanthropy is very cold and ultimately not unlike a payment from the government. The money is welcome but conveys little warmth.
There's an old poem that goes, "It's the touch of the human hand that matters." And that's what I think is important about a lot in this.
For me, as a foundation executive, I had to go out periodically and look in the faces of the people we were trying to help and hear their stories and listen to them and watch them struggle with those issues to give meaning and purpose to the day-to-day mechanics--staffing and keeping people paid and investing the money and all of that work.
Writing a check, alone, was a very spiritless act. Personally delivering that check, looking in their faces, letting those we helped know we appreciated their work and valued them as human beings was at the very heart of the whole gift, the whole process.
Then philanthropy conveys respect and dignity as well as needed resources.
Clearly, in Dallas and in Texas, the Meadows Foundation has played a major role in prodding and brokering and convening, making things happen. How do you sort of push people in what you think is a right direction and still not violate their dignity?
Well, I think the first thing is that you accept a whole series of cautions. First, you remind yourself that you are not endowed with enough wisdom, nor life experiences to play God in the lives of other people. You are given the opportunity to find an alignment between your interests and theirs.
We're not above or below them. We're a partner who brings a certain gift to the mix, just as they do. We have some money to use that can be constructive. But it doesn't give us the right to own that organization. It does give us the right to ask questions, to make sure that we think what they are doing is what is best for society.
We must be guided by the light of our values and principles just as our donees are guided by theirs.
A classic example of this was the development of a teacher training program at a university. The university came and asked for an endowment. We said we could do that, but neither of us would make a significant impact on public school education. We were interested in public school education, but not clear exactly where to intervene. We said go back to the school of education and talk to all the professors and come back to us with a plan, a program that might make a major difference in education--what you would do if you were in our place.
They came back and said, "To attract the best and brightest students, we think you should have a five-year program that would shorten one year in the process of getting a teacher to a master's degree. That's important because it will put them on a higher pay scale." The schools all paid on the basis of education achieved and expertise in teaching. "So we would also like to do a lot of in-classroom training while they're students as well. This will help the problem of pay inequity between teaching and other job options."
We, in turn, raised the issue of bilingual education and the importance of Texas becoming a state in which the Spanish-speaking population is going to be an increasingly important body that needed service. So, they made it a provision that to be in the program you had to take Spanish for two years.
Then we talked about other ways to provide incentives, and ended up providing, initially, a stipend if you went into public school teaching anywhere in Texas after you went through this program.
There was a whole debate over the issue at the time about the argument that education schools only educated people how to teach, not what to teach. And, so, the university proposed the idea that you have a B+ average for at least two years of a major in a field you are going to teach before you entered this program.
We went through all these different dialogues and as we had them, family members who had been teachers offered their thoughts about what could be done to produce better teachers. The university offered its thoughts. We went through talking back and forth to the point where we had crafted a unique problem around an alignment of interests.
It led to a multi-million-dollar gift and an extraordinarily successful program in training teachers. The graduating teachers were snapped up everywhere, but, in spite of everybody's efforts, we didn't succeed in getting many of these teachers into inner-city schools, which was one of our hopes.
So, that remained an unmet but recognized need, and we continued to look for other successful efforts that might address that concern.
So, we were learning while we were doing and that fed us with insights about the issues and problems public schools, teachers and universities were facing. It was an ongoing learning process that continued through several renewal grants over a ten-year period.
My understanding is that you were early in making grants dealing with AIDS--even before some foundations that claim to be a lot more progressive and even before some that would be much more involved in the health care area. Why did you all do that, and did you think it was bold at the time?
My sister's husband worked for a blood bank and she was very early on aware of this epidemic that was developing in our society. And my cousin, who was our grant administrator, had also picked up on the problem. The issue was also validated by the medical community in the area when we began to get proposals surrounding AIDS work.
So, it was a kind of an awareness process, an early recognition that this was out there. Then, as we examined the facts, we became convinced that it was something that needed our attention because other people were not yet addressing it specifically.
We always looked for those places where other funders weren't going as frequently as we might go. This approach led us, for example, into a major grantmaking program over the years in rural Texas. There were very few foundations in rural Texas, and, in many cases, we were the only foundation that had ever given in some of these areas.
So, we found we could play a role that was significant. Grantees also told us that because we set very high standards, our grants became a validation point for them. We were actually helping other programs get recognition and attract more funding, more volunteers and so forth simply because we had participated in their work.
Originally we started to do everything anonymously, but we found that society, and particularly Congress, did not recognize the values of the contributions made by private foundations. Therefore, by allowing our gifts to be acknowledged publicly, we let people know somebody gave something from a philanthropic tradition and there might be some value in such work if it encouraged the constructive building of a caring society.
I don't think so. Whatever the actual size, the timing of this anticipated multi-trillion-dollar wealth transfer is extraordinary in relationship to the debate going on in Congress, our nation, and in some degree the world about the role of government and the role of the private sector in creating a society in which there is equitable opportunity and fairness for all.
It seems clear that we're going to turn increasingly to the nonprofit and private sectors to take on responsibilities that, at least for the last 50 years, have been largely dominated by government programs and activities.
What is not being talked about and what concerns me is that in this transition from one funding source to another--because this is really about the money that's necessary to make these things happen--no new sources of money nor incentives for giving are being passed to the nonprofit sector to replace those taken away by government from the sector.
What government may be withdrawing from doing, individuals may not choose to do. Even if they have more money, they may not choose to spend it in the same way, or with the same priorities. So we have a critical opportunity and need to encourage as much as possible of the wealth transfer to go to charitable and philanthropic purposes.
Furthermore, people are not going to give their money to create foundations or philanthropic endowments unless there are models and stories of success causing them to believe that this is a significant way to help out in our society.
Families are not going to create successful models unless they are also willing to accept the idea that a donor left the money to a foundation and not to them for important reasons. Our uncle prepared us for that, it was not a surprise. We knew this was his intention and it made it much easier to understand and respect and even to want to venerate and raise up as a value. The legacy was the chance to care for others.
So, in this wealth transfer process, what has to go on is something that perhaps we haven't engaged in as much and that is actually the telling of the success stories. The promotion of philanthropy as an important civic, human and ethical responsibility is critical to the building of civil society.
We have a whole series of things to work on in this transfer of wealth. One, why should anybody leave their resources to philanthropy? What can philanthropy hope to accomplish? What is the agenda and who is setting it? There is nothing that makes me believe that this coming wealth transfer is going to become just an alternative fund to replace government programs. But it might play a critical bridging role as we transfer more of the social safety net back to the private sector.
Because you make choices in using philanthropic resources, you're going to be criticized from time to time. Some people will believe you should spend the money differently. So, you need to be very clear about the choices you are making. That's why you have to ground your decisions and actions in values and a philosophy supported by strategic planning.
But I think a lot of the criticism that goes on in foundations has to do with donee relations--the process by which we engage in dialogue and ultimate treatment of those people who come to us seeking help. If we approach people who are seeking help as potential partners--with dignity, respect, appreciation for what they've accomplished, and with a process that they can understand--even if they don't get the money they may at least understand they had a fair hearing. If we look for other ways to help them, even when we can't give them grants, we open the door to the giving of a mutual respect--even if people don't necessarily agree with the answers we came to.
So, I would argue that foundations have to work on their process of interaction with nonprofit organizations. Say to our applicants, in all honesty, thank you for giving us the chance to play some small role in the achievement of your dreams because some of them are our dreams, too.
If you're asking "are all foundations entrepreneurial?," the answer is obviously, no.
What does that lead you to? That some people are more adventuresome, if you will, than others. Some are more risk-taking than others. Yet, there is much work to be done by all.
But, I don't think if we had all foundations being only entrepreneurial we would necessarily be a better society for it. I think we would perhaps have a number of things being tried, but to what end, if there's no one to pick them up and to go on with them.
The entrepreneurial phase is important because it's an experimental and development phase. But ultimately the test is whether or not that entrepreneurial phase translates into anything that is significant.
So, we may support a very entrepreneurial low-income housing group in Dallas that produces 30 houses, but it isn't going to significantly resolve the problems of low-income housing unless it's replicated. If some foundation is not willing to pick it up when it reaches the maturity stage and move it on, it can never become a Habitat for Humanity.
At one point, Habitat for Humanity was supported by entrepreneurial foundations, or those that funded entrepreneurial work. Now, at another phase of it's life it is an institution providing very valuable work for our society, progressing up to doing 10,000 housing units a year, and is supported by what would be typically thought of as traditional philanthropy.
So, you can't just discount one or the other. This variety of insights and different choices is the beauty of the whole diverse philanthropic foundation system.
Well, does giving away money ever really require courage?
I think taking stands requires courage.
The hard part I suppose for everybody is taking a stand and attempting to persuade other people to join with you in that particular field. Steadfastness is an alternative to the word, courage. Staying with it, believing in it, continuing to support it when others are wavering. All of those things to me come from an anchoring around your beliefs, your belief system, your faith, and your conviction that you're doing the right thing. That gives you the will to continue and the strength to continue in the face of doubt and challenges.
But courage is a word that I think belongs more properly to our donee partners who are in the arena, who are actually out there every day facing the unmet needs with not enough resources to pull it off.
Those who give away money only get to support that person of courage.