Imagine giving out $1 billion — that’s billion with a b. How would you spend it? Who or what kinds of causes would you support?
Today the Vancouver-based M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust announced that it passed $1 billion in giving to charities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and British Columbia.
“It’s kind of a great story of good stewardship and generosity,” Steve Moore, the trust’s executive director, said in an interview with The Columbian. “The thing that we really want to celebrate are the kind of good foundations, good roots that the early trustees and staff laid down that helped really take the long view on things and say, ‘We’re here in the community and we’re here long term.’ ”
Since launching in 1975, the trust has made 6,718 grants totaling $1,005,703,799 to more than 3,000 nonprofits in arts and culture, scientific research, health, human services and education. Recent grants went to organizations such as Lutheran Community Services Northwest, Oregon Coast Aquarium, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Friends of the Children in Seattle, the International Wildlife Film Festival and several public universities.
“The only way we’re crossing this threshold, the only way we’re reaching this milestone is because of the 3,000-plus nonprofits that are in the trenches doing the hard work every day, and we’ve been able to come alongside and partner with them and they’ve let us play a small role in supporting their work,” said Colby Reade, director of communications at Murdock.
The trust was seeded with about $91 million primarily from the estate of Tektronix co-founder Melvin Jack Murdock and grown through investments. While some private foundations operate for a certain number of years and spend out their corpus, others go on in perpetuity.
“I think it’s a little unusual that our trustees have just said ‘We’re in it for the long haul.’ And as long as we can make a significant impact in the lives of individuals, families and communities, and as long as we can fulfill the donor intent of Jack Murdock, then we’ll keep doing that,” Moore said. “We hope that the next billion dollars that we’re able to invest happens faster than 44 years. We hope that we’re able to grow the endowment, and we hope that we’re able to invest even quicker.”
Moore likes to describe the philanthropy sector as an ecosystem, and private foundations like Murdock are one part of it. Murdock’s niche is to help nonprofits build capacity so they can better fulfill their mission. That could mean adding new staff, technology, programs or facilities.
The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, which is a public foundation with multiple contributors, received a $70,000 Murdock grant in 2013 that was used to purchase additional software and update its website. It’s something the Vancouver-based organization wouldn’t have been able to afford without Murdock, said Jennifer Rhoads, its president.
“Their growth and the investments they’ve been able to put back in the community have been remarkable,” she said. “We’ve been lucky to have them in our backyard in Vancouver.”
Offering a lift
Bill Henry founded the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes when he was 14 and powerlifting with a group of friends in his parents’ garage. He originally came across the Murdock Charitable Trust through a Google search and was turned down when he first applied for a grant.
“I’m so glad we were because we learned so much from it, and we weren’t ready at that time. But, they told us what we needed to do to get ready to help expand our mission,” said Henry, who is legally blind.
In February 2014 his nonprofit received a three-year grant totaling $143,000 and another $171,000 grant in August 2016.
“That’s when we really started our growth. We were growing steadily before that, but that was really a huge infusion that helped us scale our programs,” Henry said. Programs include an overnight camp, an adaptable equipment lending library and single-day events where people can try everything from skiing to swimming to stand-up paddleboarding.
Both Murdock grants were used for leadership positions to grow programs and fundraising efforts. Henry’s nonprofit employs 12 people and now offers sports and recreational opportunities to 1,650 people who are blind or visually impaired every year. The nonprofit recently moved into a larger downtown Vancouver office in the same building the Murdock Trust used to occupy before it moved to The Waterfront Vancouver. The new waterfront space allows Murdock to offer more trainings and open up their space for grantees to use.
For Henry, the grants, guidance and workshops provided by Murdock have been a launching pad for his nonprofit. He aims to someday open satellite offices in Seattle, Eugene, Ore. and Boise, Idaho, to offer programs to more people who are blind and visually impaired.
Criticized by some
Not every group the Murdock Trust supports and invests in is universally regarded. The trust has received backlash for granting money to groups with anti-LGBTQ, anti-union and anti-abortion leanings.
For instance, the trust granted $375,000 in 2016 to conservative Christian nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom for education and public awareness programs. The group has been linked to transgender bathroom legislation; on its website Alliance Defending Freedom says it focuses on issues of religious freedom, sanctity of life, marriage and family.
Another controversial grantee is Portland Fellowship, which has been associated with conversion therapy. However, the fellowship says on its website it does not practice conversion therapy but rather offers voluntary counseling to people who are “taken captive by the desire to fulfill un-met needs for love and affirmation through (unwanted) same-sex desires and relationships.”
And, Murdock has granted money to the Freedom Foundation, whose mission is “to reverse the stranglehold government unions have on our state and local policymaking.”
It was these types of grants that caught the attention of Northwest Accountability Project, a pro-labor watchdog formed in 2015.
“Over the years, the Murdock Trust has given millions to groups actively seeking to undermine working families, women’s health and the LGBTQ community,” the group’s executive director, Peter Starzynski, said in a prepared statement. “The Murdock Trust should use their millions to help communities and not fund divisive, hateful organizations.”
The Murdock Trust addresses some of these controversies in a Q&A section on its website. The grant to the Alliance Defending Freedom was earmarked for projects on college campuses addressing students’ First Amendment rights and was not tied to the bathroom legislation on the East Coast, the trust said. It also pointed out that some of its grants have served the LGBTQ community.
In his interview with The Columbian, Moore said the trust seeks to assist diverse organizations that serve diverse needs and work toward the common good. Grants fund specific, vetted projects.
“If you just plotted the kind of grants that we do, there are some that are left of center, some that are right of center, a lot that are in the center. It’s part of being in a community,” Moore said. “If we can come together, it doesn’t mean we have to agree about everything.”
Moore said the trust doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about people who are part of special political advocacy groups. The criticism they get is marginal, he said.
“We’re going to try to be faithful and consistent to Jack Murdock’s donor intent and the mission that he gave us to do,” Moore said. “We also are continually asking ourselves ‘Are there new ways and new places that we can serve the nonprofit community?’ ”
He’s quick to point out that the Murdock Charitable Trust is one small part of philanthropy. Individual donors who give up their time and resources, “that’s really what makes the ultimate difference.”