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Dean Witter empowers education and environmental preservation

Wed, 31 Oct 2012 12:49:00
Article by:
Julie McCoy
At the San Francisco-based Dean Witter Foundation, it’s all about two issues – the environment and education.

The foundation supports wildlife conservation projects in Northern California and opportunities to improve and extend environmental education. Additionally, it awards grants to launch and expand innovative K-12 public education initiatives.

Established in 1952 and celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the Dean Witter Foundation is a 501(c)3 private, nonoperating foundation — and as such, it grants money to outside charitable organizations. In comparison, a private operating foundation grants money to its own programs that exist for charitable purposes.

The Dean Witter Foundation has an endowment and is required to give away 5 percent of the endowment every year, explained Ken Blum, consultant for the organization. “We like to help organizations launch new projects,” he commented.

Last year, the foundation awarded $750,000 in grants, according to Blum. When the economy is good, the foundation awards $900,000 to $1 million worth of grants. Typically it’s a pretty even split, with half the grants going to wildlife conservation and environmental education projects, and the other half going to K-12 public education initiatives, Blum explained.

One organization that received a grant from the Dean Witter Foundation in August is the Oakland-based Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration — CEMAR. This organization works to rehabilitate coastal streams in California, according to Executive Director Andy Gunther.

“They recognize that we really have to go one stream at a time in California,” Gunther explained. “Really each stream has its own story. Each stream has a different set of stakeholders. It has a story of biology. It has a human story.”

CEMAR is using the grant it received from the Dean Witter Foundation to bring its programs to the Napa River watershed. “We think there’s a great opportunity there,” Gunther said. “We think there is great potential for restoring steelhead and chinook [or king] salmon. The watershed is producing salmon right now.”

Marine Applied Research & Exploration — MARE — is another organization that received  $25,000 this spring from the Dean Witter Foundation. Based in Richmond in the East Bay, MARE provides technology and offshore operations expertise needed to see and work in deep water marine environments, according to MARE President Dirk Rosen.

Rosen explained that the grant is being used to help cut the costs of deploying the robotic submarines MARE uses to gather data on fish and assess their habitat.

“He [Blum] understood the need to lower the costs of deep water monitoring and assessments of fisheries,” Rosen noted. “The neat thing about Dean Witter and Ken Blum is they got the momentum started.”

In addition to the $25,000 it received from the Dean Witter Foundation, MARE received two other grants from other sources — one for $50,000 and another for $60,000 — so MARE is now about 95 percent funded, according to Rosen.

The Dean Witter Foundation “was interested, passionate about what we are doing and well-organized,” Rosen commented. “The whole process was very efficient.”

Rosen added, “If we didn’t have their $25,000, we’d still be looking for it. I’m really happy and look forward to a good relationship with them going forward.”

PRBO Conservation Science is a California-based wildlife conservation and research nonprofit organization in Petaluma that was founded in 1965 as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. This organization has received regular funding from the Dean Witter Foundation for many years, according to President Ellie Cohen.
The grant is being used to support PRBO’s marine ecology program, which benefits sea birds and other marine life. “We have such generosity here in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Cohen commented. “The Dean Witter Foundation is a big leader in that.”

Often the Dean Witter Foundation will award matching or challenge grants to organizations.

The foundation has given challenge grants to the Los Altos-based Sempervirens Fund — California’s oldest land trust, and the only organization dedicated solely to protecting the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The fund has been receiving these grants for the last three years, according to Executive Director Reed Holderman.

In May, the foundation gave Sempervirens a challenge grant of $25,000, and now Sempervirens needs to get 25 donors to contribute $1,000 by May 2013.

In 2010–2011, the foundation gave Sempervirens a $20,000 grant, and the challenge was for Sempervirens to get 40 donors to donate $1,000 each. Sempervirens ended up getting 81 donors to contribute $233,000.

“Each year, they’re kind of raising the bar, which is great,” Holderman said. “Each time they’ve done it, we’ve exceeded expectations — theirs and ours. They’re good people to work with. It’s not a passive relationship at all. It’s a very active, very engaged relationship.”

Sempervirens’ goal is to link state parks such as Big Basin, Portola and Castle Rock together. “They’ve [Dean Witter] been a big part of getting us off the launch pad on this,” Holderman explained.

The Dean Witter Foundation invites grantees and potential grantees to its board meetings — something Holderman likes and appreciates.

“The board has taken a very active interest in what we’re up to,” he said, noting that when he attended a board meeting, “They wanted to know what was happening and how their money had been used. They obviously have deep roots in land trust.”

Each year, Dean Witter III — also known as Kip — and his wife, Becky, attend Sempervirens’ Sequoia Circle Dinner, which the organization holds annually to thank its major donors. “They have attended every one I went to and probably many more before I got here four years ago,” Holderman explained.

Sempervirens has had a close relationship with the Dean Witter Foundation since 1986, according to Holderman. “It has allowed us to strengthen and enhance our development program, and more recently diversify our donor base,” he explained.

In the area of K-12 education initiatives, the Dean Witter Foundation has awarded Davidson Middle School in San Rafael three $25,000 grants since 2009, according to Principal Harriet McLean.

“They make it very easy for you,” McLean said. “They want to fund things that affect kids positively.”

The Dean Witter Foundation writes a check to the school district, and the school district then writes a check to the school. Each year the money is used to pay Annika Osborn, who was hired to work part-time on career and college readiness initiatives.

“Their funding has made an enormous difference at Davidson,” McLean explained. She said that she did not know how she would have done it without the grants. “It’s obvious they really care about kids,” she added.

Napa-based On the Move, which works to develop the next generation of committed, emerging leaders for the public and nonprofit sectors, received $80,000 from the Dean Witter Foundation according to Executive Director Leslie Medine.

On the Move used the Dean Witter Foundation’s grant to start a teacher’s credentialing school known as The Reach Institute for School Leadership, which now has a masters program in education.

The Reach Institute, which provides mentoring, coaching and professional development with its programs, serves 250 teachers a year in the East Bay and San Jose. “Teachers need three to five years to be effective at what they do,” Medine stated. 

Medine noted that On the Move also got a grant from the Dean Witter Foundation that went to McPherson Elementary in Napa. “That also was very important, just another example of the work they’re doing to try to support future leaders,” she said.

Medine has known Blum and his father, John Blum, a long time. “Their whole goal is to find good people doing good things, or good people doing effective things,” she said.

What does the future hold for the Dean Witter Foundation?

“The Foundation's future grantmaking will evolve over time based on the interest of the current and next generation of family board members, as well as immediate needs within the community,” Blum explained.

“While K-12 education and conservation will probably stay constant, what we fund within those pockets might change. The foundation has never placed set time frames on itself to change its grantmaking program; rather, it has naturally evolved over time. Over the next 10 years, new environmental and education challenges will likely emerge, and the foundation's goal will be to identify specific and modest opportunities where its grantmaking can make a difference to address these challenges,” Blum concluded.

More information about the Dean Witter Foundation can be found at www.deanwitterfoundation.org/.
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