In 2016, NPQ wrote about the founding of the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation in Michigan. The emergence of the new philanthropy was made notable by a number of factors, including its $1.2 billion endowment and the fact that it will sunset or spend down within twenty years of its founding.
The foundation is a part of the legacy of Ralph C. Wilson, who died in 2014. Wilson was a resident of Detroit, and the owner of the Buffalo Bills NFL team. Before that, Wilson was one of the founding owners of the American Football League (AFL), the league with which the NFL merged in 1970. Before his death, Wilson charged his closest friends, who he felt would best understand and honor his interests and intentions, with giving away every last cent of his endowment over that limited time span.
But here is where it gets really interesting and serendipitous: One of the foundation’s more unusual and specific grantmaking categories is aimed at supporting home-based caregivers. Many NPQ readers know that this workforce is expected to expand to meet growing need over the next few years, but it is also largely underpaid, subject to erratic hours and minimal benefits, and largely comprises women and people of color, many of whom have to depend upon government subsidies to get by. Thus, it is a workforce in crisis. Retention and recruitment have become major problems as the job market has gotten more promising overall, leaving many elders with care that is too often inconsistent and unreliable.
The fragile state of the caregiving workforce has immediate and long-term consequences and requires the application of a range of strategies. So, what better news than to have a large foundation with this particular issue as one of its major foci?
We interviewed Amber Slichta, the foundation’s Vice President of Programs, to ask about the foundation’s announcement of an unusual grantmaking collaboration—two grants worth $4 million to endow grant officer positions focused on caregiving at two other foundations, the Health Foundation for Western & Central New York and the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. As Slichta described it to me, this grant category was the only one that Wilson approved personally, though the foundation has four. And the approach to grantmaking under this focus is, indeed, very thoughtful and still quite broad, as befits a field in such growth and turmoil.
These positions will exist in perpetuity, and the grant officers who fill them will work to focus some of the grant money in both of those two foundations on the support of caregivers. The Wilson Foundation expects as part of the deal to establish a small cohort of grantmakers that can coordinate and consult with one another on strategic approaches to the issue.
But the foundation has also begun to take some other actions. One of these is to fund three feasibility studies to explore the establishment of home care worker co-ops in and around Rochester, Buffalo, and Detroit. As NPQ has written before, the workforce issues in this sector lend themselves to the exploration of alternative business models, including worker cooperatives. The feasibility studies are being undertaken by PHI, which runs the best known of these co-ops, which is located in the Bronx.
The foundation is also working with three major health systems to look at what most affects caregiver retention rates, and it may soon begin to look at potential support of advocacy activities aimed at policy and funding questions. It has even commissioned a study performed by a firm of anthropologists to look at the infrastructure needed to sustain family caregivers so that our cultures are more supportive of that role.
Again, supporting caregivers is not the sole focus of this foundation, but the fact that the corpus of the foundation is to be spent quickly and in a focused manner allows it to take a strong strategic lead on a time-sensitive problem that may have some actual solutions, and that makes this a great test of the value of spenddown foundations.