James S. McDonnell left St. Louis a huge legacy when he started McDonnell Aircraft here in 1939. Forty-two years after his death, his descendants set out to do more for their hometown.
The James S. McDonnell Foundation, founded by “Mr. Mac” in 1950, spent several decades funding research into human cognition and complex systems.
The foundation’s board of directors, made up of two sons and seven grandchildren of the founder, decided to change direction. Instead of funding academic science around the world, its future grants will focus squarely on St. Louis. It will support regional causes such as economic mobility, workforce development, science and math education, and life sciences.
Alicia McDonnell, a granddaughter of Mr Mac, said the council had spent two years rethinking its mission. Susan Fitzpatrick, a respected biochemist and neuroscientist who has served as the foundation’s president since 2015, announced she would be retiring in 2022, and the time seemed right for a new approach.
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“St. Louis is where we come from and where we grew up,” Alicia McDonnell said. Louis is where my grandfather chose to come and build his business. We are very emotionally attached to it and proud of it.
The foundation has $590 million in assets, according to its 2019 tax return, and it distributes about $20 million a year.
Jason Hall, chief executive of business and civic group Greater St. Louis Inc., said the move fills a void left when another prominent family, the Danforths, dissolved their foundation more than a decade ago. Besides launching the Danforth Plant Science Center, the Danforth Foundation has supported Great Rivers Greenway and a host of other civic initiatives.
“It’s huge,” Hall said of the McDonnells’ decision. “You have to do a lot of things to grow as a region. You need to have a strategy, a structure and you need civic capital to launch worthwhile projects.
He said the McDonnell Foundation could be to St. Louis what the Lilly Endowment is to Indianapolis or the Heinz Endowments are to Pittsburgh. Other wealthy St. Louisians, like Andrew Taylor of Enterprise Rent-A-Car and David Steward of World Wide Technology, are generous funders of regional causes, but the structure of a foundation makes them a fundraiser. reliable.
“You know how much is distributed each year; it’s long-term capital,” Hall said. “If you are a civic entrepreneur, you know that a foundation has an application process. This encourages good ideas to come out. »
In Indianapolis in 2020, the Lilly Endowment gave the Urban League $100 million to close racial gaps in education, jobs, housing and health. It also allocated $2.8 million to the region’s chamber of commerce for a data project.
The Lilly Endowment is much larger than the McDonnell Foundation, so the numbers will be smaller in St. Louis. Alicia McDonnell, however, is eager to help the community where all but one of the foundation’s trustees live.
“We don’t have huge assets, so we can’t change the world, but we see areas where we could partner with other organizations and make a difference,” she said.
In some ways, the foundation’s new mission is an applied version of the old one. It will range from studying how humans learn to wonder what skills St. Louis employers need, and examining complex systems like climate and health care, to reducing geographical, racial and economic divisions of the region.
“St. Louis is a large, complex system,” Alicia McDonnell said. “There are challenges, but we believe we can be helpful in addressing them.”
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