Eroding economy, nonprofit assistance and growing tomatoes
Sherry Magill is president of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, a Jacksonville-based fund created by the estate of Mrs. DuPont, who died in 1970 as the widow of industrialist Alfred I. duPont. Her fund benefits about 330 organizations nationwide that she supported between Jan. 1, 1960, and Dec. 31, 1964. The fund has awarded about $300 million in support. Magill is an outspoken advocate of the role nonprofits play in society and the need for their support, especially during the recession. She met with the Daily Record editorial staff Tuesday.
Did you foresee that the economy was going to be as bad as it turned out?
I’ve been at the Jessie Ball duPont Fund almost 19 years and I’ve experienced, in my career here, two steep declines. One took 24 months and one took three months. I can tell you they felt really different. The 24-month decline was a steady, long erosion and the Dow went down to almost 8,000. It was steep, but it was gradual and that meant you were adjusting constantly on the investment side and the grant side. This was such a precipitous decline. I think all of us in the charitable field had a wrenching experience. I think it was a full-blown panic. It felt like a panic and nobody knew it was going to hit or when it would end. We paid a lot of attention not only to what was happening to our portfolio, but also what was happening to nonprofits that we fund, particularly those that serve the most vulnerable in our community. The decline started in August 2008, so in November the Jessie Ball duPont trustees decided to give $1 million away locally for the homeless shelter system. And $600,000 was raised to match that. It helped. I call it an economic emergency.
In looking at the state of nonprofits as a whole, what were you seeing?
Everything was suffering, but I think the homeless shelter system was suffering in a disproportionate way partly because of what they do. Not to pick on cultural organizations — they were suffering, too — but they’re not feeding people. They do have staffs and a large percent of our nonprofits have cut staff, so I wouldn’t say they weren’t suffering. But with the homeless shelter system, what happens is their donations declined 40 percent in a three-month period of time and this was the end of the year when they get the majority of their donations. That figure came from them when we met with them. Basically their donations were cut in half from fall of 2008 to fall of 2009, and they were feeding twice the number of people they were feeding six months before. Folks, whole families, were driving to shelters to eat and still living in intact homes just to make ends meet. We heard a lot of stories about two-parent households where men would stop by homeless shelters on their way home from work to not take food off the table. Those were harsh stories.
Regarding government, what’s your overall take on how state governments are handling budgets?
I think if you look at what most legislators are talking about in those states that are experiencing the worst part of this economic crisis, the conversation doesn’t change from state to state. I talked to colleagues in Arizona and they’re going through some horrific budget cuts right now. The conversation is not different. I have yet to read or hear a local or state government talk about increasing revenue from a broad spectrum. Some legislative bodies have talked about raising additional revenues from nonprofits. We’re not talking about broadly raising revenues, we’re talking about going to a particular type of organization that currently is tax exempt. The first argument is ‘let’s just cut,’ but it worsens the economic crisis when government cuts.
What are your staff levels? Did you have to cut at any point?
I just hired two people who will start in June and when they start, we’ll be at 10. What we did on staff side, is last year somebody retired and I didn’t replace them until the summer. It’s a small staff and we haven’t balanced anything on the staff.
In general, what is the fund invested in?
A certain percent is in hedge funds. A certain percent is in alternatives. A certain percent is in domestic stocks. And, a certain percent is in traditional stocks and bonds.
We have an increasing international mix and we are very well diversified. We have 13 to 14 different managers with Northern Trust Bank out of Chicago.
Is there anything that’s off limits?
We don’t invest in junk and we don’t invest in shady deals. We would never invest with someone like (Bernie) Madoff.
Do you get a lot of interesting offers and sales pitches?
I get a lot of calls regularly from people who want to talk about investments. I don’t take those calls. We have a very professional team that oversees our portfolio. Our hedge funds and portfolio are all handled by audited firms. I think we are comfortable with those investments.
You send letters to the City checking on the status of grants the fund gives to the City. Are you satisfied with the responses you get?
The relationship with the City is an interesting one. Mrs. duPont deeded Treaty Oak to the City, so it’s eligible for grants. We have not done a lot with the City, but we have helped with the restoration of Treaty Oak. The work there slowed down because of the economy. It (the pace of work) depends on the grant and whether things go as planned. It varies from place to place, but we haven’t had a lot of grants with this administration.
The fund made a total donation of $300,000 to aid victims of the earthquake in Haiti. How does that fit with the policy of only supporting charities that Mrs. duPont contributed to in the early 1960s?
We call those Disaster Relief Grants. Whenever there is a natural disaster like an earthquake or tornadoes, hurricanes or floods we always go through an exercise where we think about what kind of responsibility we might have and do we have eligible organizations that Mrs. duPont funded that are involved in relief activities?
In this instance, we made a grant to the Archdiocese of Miami. They were trying to relocate children and reunite them with family members in Miami-Dade. We also made a grant to the University of Miami and we fund a couple of American Red Cross chapters. There is a very strong chapter in Wilmington, Delaware. We have channeled a lot of charitable dollars for relief efforts through them over many years.
After 9/11, we donated to the September 11th Fund through that chapter. After Hurricane Katrina we made our donations through the Salvation Army and American Red Cross.
We also give $10,000 a year to all of the churches Mrs. duPont funded. Churches are part of the vast social safety net system. When people exhaust other avenues, like the Clara White Mission or the Sulzbacher Center, they will go to area churches. It used to be $7,500 a year but we increased it to $10,000 in January. given the economic conditions.
Was Haiti an unusual case because it’s a foreign country?
We had done some foreign relief grants through the American Red Cross system. When Hurricane Mitch struck Central America we participated in that. I think we did something for the tsunami (in Indonesia).
Haiti was an interesting internal conversation because we didn’t see it as a foreign country. We saw it as an extension of Florida. If you’ve ever been down to the sugar cane fields, that connection between South Florida and Haiti is pretty strong. We wouldn’t say we weren’t going to participate because it didn’t happen on American soil. That’s not the way we think about it. We really think about it in terms of the organizations and their reach.
You think about the people more than you think about the geography?
How did you discover the Jessie Ball duPont Fund?
I was lucky. I was working in higher education. I had a Ph.D. in American studies and I was working at a small private college on the eastern shore of Maryland. I went to work for a brilliant small-college president. The administration was very lean and I was his executive assistant and then vice president. It was a great education for me. I was there eight years and mostly I wrote proposals to foundations.
Speaking from the standpoint of a nonprofit foundation that helps other nonprofit organizations, do you think anything good will come out of this recession for the nonprofit sector?
That’s a really tough question. I think nonprofits are by and large lean organizations. Their budgets aren’t fat and you don’t see a lot of waste. There are a lot of workers who don’t have benefits working in this sector.
I think the sector will be smaller. One hopes the organizations that emerge from this will be stronger, but they are already pretty lean to begin with.
One thing I hope will be a result of this, and I think it’s happening in Jacksonville and I’m very proud of it, I think there will be a renewed interest in the nonprofit sector and people who are in leadership positions that aren’t in the sector are beginning to understand how important nonprofits are to the community.
I think we have done a good job in the past two years helping those who write about the sector understand its challenges and what it does locally. I think we’ve done a good job helping the Mayor’s office understand us better. I think we’ve done a good job helping a sizable portion of the City Council understand what’s at stake and why partnerships are so important.
I’m hopeful that as we emerge from this recession, what remains will be really strong and that we can rebuild.
What would you be doing if you weren’t running the duPont Fund?
I would be doing one of two things: teaching at the college or writing and working in my yard.
Where do you think the fund will be in 25 years?
I won’t be here running it, but I hope it’s doing a lot more public engagement work. I hope it commissions local and statewide studies. I hope it advocates grants. I hope it’s thought of as a thought leader. But, I hope it stays committed to the places Mrs. duPont was committed to.
What do you do for fun?
I went swimming this morning. Read. Ride my bike. I’m an avid gardener. I have a little vegetable garden. Someone said not to grow tomatoes in Florida. (She does.) If I get some, I’ll bring you some.