Sometimes you get hints a break-up is imminent, as with downtown developers Lee Danielson and Colin Rolph. But last September, the world of nonprofits was stunned when, without warning, the green-leaning, cash-slinging, 56-year-old W. Alton Jones Foundation announced it was dissolving– with nary a clue why.
The Foundation, best known for its support of environmental causes and anti-nuclear proliferation groups, brought in New York PR big-gun Howard Rubenstein to issue a statement that raised more questions than it answered. Rubenstein said the $400 million endowment would be divided between three new foundations to be run by W. Alton Jones’ descendants. And yet, six months later, the family still refuses to say exactly what the new foundations will do.
“It was a surprise to all of us,” says Joe Szakos at the Virginia Organizing Project, which had received Foundation money for two affiliated groups. “It was a surprise to their staff.”
If former employees have since solved the puzzle, they’re officially staying mum– mainly because their severance packages include a confidentiality clause. “My name can’t appear in print,” says one. “I really need my severance.”
Ironically, perhaps, the founder of the foundation so devoted to supporting environmental causes made his fortune in the development of natural gas and petroleum resources at Cities Service Company, later bought out by Occidental Petroleum.
W. Alton “Pete” Jones’ descendants currently involved with the new foundations are daughter Patricia Jones Edgerton, who’s married to Dr. Milton Edgerton, a pioneer in sex change operations at Johns Hopkins and UVA hospitals, and three of her four children: Brad Edgerton, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills; Diane Edgerton Miller, now the Foundation president; and Bill Edgerton, an architect who was recently appointed to the Albemarle County planning commission.
While the Edgertons are tight-lipped about the split, Brian Wheeler, who worked at the Foundation until 1997, says he was shocked at the break-up.
“Their interests all seemed aligned with the Foundation’s,” says Wheeler. “I never got the feeling anyone wanted to go off on their own.” Apparently something changed after 1997.
While foundations are perceived to be relatively immortal, it’s not unheard of for them to break up in the third generation, so the trustees can follow different interests, according to the head of the Association of Small Foundations, Charles Scott, citing the MacArthur and the Packard foundations as examples.
What’s unusual about the split at the Jones Foundation is its suddenness. Employees were read the press release the same day it was released.
“I can’t believe that it was a well-thought out plan,” says one former employee, who speculates that perhaps the family felt the 20-plus member staff had too much control.
Another posits a theory that the siblings had different ideas about what to fund. “In particular, Diane wanted to do her own thing,” says this ex-Joneser. “I’ve heard Brad will stay with a lot of the same W. Alton Jones issues– the environment and nuclear disarmament.”
Brad Edgerton did not return calls from The Hook, but his wife, Louise, says they’re still deciding on the focus of the new organization, to be called the Edgerton Foundation. She describes the break-up as a “perfectly amicable split” and says everyone is waiting for the IRS to rule on the dissolution before announcing the new Baby Jones foundations.
But a reliable source has given The Hook the scoop on the new entities. Diane Miller and her mother, Patricia Edgerton, allegedly will run a foundation called Blue Moon, from the original W. Alton Jones headquarters at 433 Park Street.
“[Diane] wants to keep it out of the public eye,” says this source. “She wants to pick and have more control on what she funds, with fewer unsolicited organizations asking for money.” Miller did not return numerous phone calls.
Architect Bill Edgerton’s plan is the Oak Hill Foundation, which will focus on sustainable, affordable, and energy-efficient housing for the rural poor, according to the insider. Edgerton did not return phone calls from The Hook.
“I think Diane and Bill have an eye to do more funding in Charlottesville,” says another ex-staffer.
The National Center for Family Philanthropy’s Jason Born explains that family foundations sometimes split up when family members who are trustees move and decide to focus their grants on their new community.
Around the beginning of February, the remaining bare-bones Foundation staff moved to the Park Street location from its swanky offices in Queen Charlotte Square, whose plushness had raised eyebrows among the politically correct staff. (High-end furniture was auctioned off, and The Hook is now the proud owner of a pair of excellent bookcases.)
A February 28 website update noted that although the Foundation was still restructuring, it would honor all existing commitments.
One of the local beneficiaries is to the Piedmont Housing Alliance, which is counting on a $500,000 match of the City’s contribution in its effort to purchase of Garrett Square housing complex. “I’m very confident they’re still committed to funding us,” says the Alliance’s Stu Armstrong.
Other nonprofits see the split as a serious blow.
“We were all caught unawares on this,” says publisher Stephen Schwartz of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Best known as the international organization that last month moved its Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to “midnight,” an indication of rising tensions, the Bulletin enjoyed a $300,000 grant over the past two years.
The timing of the Foundation’s demise was “unfortunate,” says Schwartz. “When you lose your third-largest fund, it’s gonna take a while to fill that gap.”
And Szakos at the Virginia Organizing Project says for groups like the Virginia Forest Watch or the Montebello Clean Mountain Coalition, “there are not many other places to go for funding.”
One former Jones staffer says part of the shock of the dissolution was that “the Foundation was doing a lot of good work. It had gotten the staff and established grants that were becoming effective.”
“It does leave a hole,” says Loren Renz, research vice president at the Foundation Center, a nonprofit focusing on institutional philanthropy. “They took such a global perspective in their funding.” She says the Jones Foundation was the 11th largest funder of international causes.
And while many foundations now fund environmental causes, Renz points out that the Jones focus on anti-nuclear proliferation was very specific. “You’ve got to have experts who are highly specialized and hire those who really understand those issues,” she says, adding, “That’s why they had influence.”
Indeed, the Foundation’s star, post-Cold War nuclear proliferation expert George Perkovich, a savant on India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities and author of India’s Nuclear Bomb, was snapped up almost immediately after the break-up by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Perkovich started work there in January.
No one doubts the power of big foundations to coordinate lobbying and set the agenda of diverse environmental groups. Environmental lawyer Jonathan Adler says in “Inside the Green Mafia: The Big Environmentalist Grantmakers” (October 1996, Foundation Watch), “Well-funded organizations gain the attention of policymakers simply by virtue of the recognition they receive from national grant makers.”
Foundation power has come under fire. Critics still mention the 1996 book co-authored by Foundation director John Peterson “Pete” Myers, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?– A Scientific Detective Story. Boosted by a Foundation PR campaign and a forward written by Al Gore, the book purported to reveal the horrible effects of synthetic hormones on human reproductive patterns. The only problem? The research on which the book was based couldn’t be replicated, thus forcing Science magazine to repudiate an earlier article and retract the findings.
“A major public embarrassment,” says Ronald Bailey. In a 1998 article for Philanthropy Roundtable magazine, Bailey decried the Foundation’s “scare tactics” and what he considered an “expensive and probably pointless 30-year inquisition against man-made chemicals.” [Bailey had a provocative column about designer babies in the March 21 issue of the Hook. –ed]
Despite the controversy, Charles Scott at the Association of Small Foundations calls W. Alton Jones “an upstanding foundation known for funding creative, innovative ideas,” and he pooh-poohs the notion that some nonprofits will be hurt by the loss of the Jones support. “There are 59,000 foundations out there and no shortage of funds to support good causes.”
Whatever the internal politics, Scott points out that the Foundation is legally required to give away five percent of its endowment every year. Even splitting WAJ’s hefty $400 million endowment three ways, “You’ll still have very substantial foundations,” says Scott, who notes that the majority of foundations are in the $4-$10 million range.
And that should leave plenty of money to realize founder Pete Jones’ dream that his fortune “promote the well-being and general good of mankind throughout the world.”