When the Tracy Family Foundation (TFF) set out to determine its strategic vision for the next five years, the Mount Sterling, Illinois family foundation included goals for Brown County, the surrounding region in western Illinois served by the foundation, and the Tracy family itself.

The plan’s goals for Brown County and the region touch on Catholic school enrollment, nonprofit capacity building, education in Brown County schools, responses to community surveys about living in the area, and area youth engagement. As for the family, the vision includes goals for board participation, retreat and conference attendance, and communication.

For this $3.5-million foundation established in 1997, the commitment to family and community are simply inseparable.

“It was truly a natural thing to do,” explains TFF President Jean Buckley, daughter of the founders, Robert and Dorothy Tracy. “I won’t feel like I’ve done a good job unless the next generation gets involved in community with time and money. We’re charged with building a philanthropic spirit. You can’t build that philanthropic spirit without active participation, and how do you know if you have active participation if you don’t measure it? This is the way we’re accountable for ourselves.”

With a dedication to community and driven by outcomes, TFF trustees have successfully mobilized a family and, with the creation of the Brown County Action Teams in 2005, an entire community in a common commitment to giving.

Family Business, Family Philanthropy

Robert “R. T.” Tracy created Associated Dairy Products Company out of his home in Mount Sterling, Illinois in 1960. The company sold milk powder ingredients to food manufacturers. Dorothy, whom Tracy met and married in college after serving in World War II, kept the books and handled the office duties until R.T. hired extra staff. At that point, they already had eight children. The Tracys would welcome four more children to the family and to the growing family business.

“My brothers used to load and refuel the trucks,” Buckley recalls. “The girls got involved cleaning the offices every night for 50 cents.”

After graduating from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, Buckley rejoined the family business as its first female sales representative. She married, had a family of her own, and worked in marketing before moving to the philanthropic side of the family’s enterprises.

By 2005, the company now known as Dot Foods had become the country’s largest food redistributor, having recorded more than $2 billion in revenues. The company funds both the corporate giving program known as Dot Charitable Giving and the Tracy Family Foundation.

“We’re really the first generation [of the Tracy Family Foundation],” Buckley explains. “Mom and Dad support the work of the foundation, but have never been involved with the governance. Over 50 percent of the 12 children and their spouses have served as trustees. The work of the foundation could not have been accomplished without the group effort and passion of the family.”

In 1997, the family business committed a portion of its profits to the foundation.

“We were looking for additional ways to be philanthropic, to share the blessings that we’ve all had,” Buckley says. “If the company continues to grow and be profitable, they’ll make an annual contribution to the foundation.”

R.T. passed away in 2006, survived by Dorothy, his 12 children, and now 47 grandchildren. The foundation was “inspired by the values set forth” by R.T. and Dorothy and “as an expression of gratitude for the wonderful gift they gave us – the examples of their lives”.

The foundation they created bears the hallmarks of the family’s shared charitable passion and business experience. The 12 Tracy children resolved to focus the foundation’s energies on youth, education, and strengthening families, a mission they found “sufficiently broad to allow the Trustees some latitude and yet sufficiently focused as to provide direction.” The foundation allows for support of charities outside Brown County, but grants from the region are given priority, and the foundation is to “forever remain financially committed to Brown County.” The mission statement declares the generation’s “desire…to encourage the growth of a grateful spirit within all Tracy generations present and future.” The belief that “the foundation benefits tremendously from the presence and perspective of non-family members on the board” is shared in the TFF Legacy Statement.

“These documents – the Brown County Commitment Statement, the Mission Statement, and the Legacy Statement – along with our TFF Strategic Plan, serve as a compass for the foundation,” says Buckley. “They guide us in our giving and our governance.”

When tensions inevitably did arise, the family could rely on their common experience growing up in the family business to see them through.

“We’re so used to communicating via email and conference calls and working in a business situation that we tend to run the foundation like that,” says Buckley. “We gather opinions. We decide what the consensus is, and a decision is made. People live with those decisions.”

“We grew up together,” she says. “We don’t always agree with each other. We might occasionally get upset, but at the end of the day, we’re still family. Mom and Dad taught us that that’s the most important thing.”

A New Generation

Just as succession planning and transition remains important within the family business, the same holds true with the family foundation.

“It’s only a matter of time before [the third generation] is in charge of us,” says Buckley, whose daughter Megan Buckley has served a one-year term on the board and edits the family’s third generation newsletter Three.

The TFF board is composed of two non-family members, five second-generation Tracys or their spouses who serve three-year terms, and two third generation members who serve one-year terms. The third generation seats are reserved for a grandchild aged 16-21 and another 22-30.

“Because there are so many kids, we’re trying to expose as many as possible to the governance of the foundation, so they can get a much better grasp on what’s really involved,” Buckley explains. “In January 2009, we will be adding a designated three-year seat for a third generation member. It only makes sense. They are the future leaders.”

Beyond board participation, third generation members can participate in the Third Generation Grant Program.

“This program allows members of the third generation to request $1,000 from the Tracy Family Foundation for an organization in his or her community,” Buckley says. “They have to go out and do a ‘mini-site visit,’ formally submit the request, and informally report on their grants at the annual family vacation.”

“The kids then vote on an organization to get an additional grant,” she says, pointing to how involved the presentations are getting in an effort to earn organizations the additional dollars. “It’s just so exciting to see the third generation begin to become passionate about causes.”

Engaging a Community

As the TFF mission implies, Brown County and its improvement will remain a cause close to the Tracy family’s heart.

“We’ve done two needs and assets studies in the county,” Buckley explains. “It goes back to our business background. What is the situation? What can be done about it?”

In 2005, TFF asked The Medical Foundation and University of Illinois Extension-Adams/Brown County Unit to examine the strengths and needs of Brown County in the areas of youth, education, families, health and wellness, and community betterment. “The response from the community was amazing,” she says. “People said, ‘The foundation wants to know what I think?’ It’s a wonderful way to engage a community.”

Buckley calls the report’s release daunting and a little overwhelming.

“Now we know the needs. Now we know the assets. Now what are we going to do?” Buckley says.

Concerned that the report would be released but little would change, TFF collaborated with the University of Illinois Extension and the United Way of Brown County to release a plan of action to improve the area.

“We introduced the report and had a ‘call to action’ in the community,” says Buckley. “We took the different issue areas within the report and we set up action teams for each area. We said, ‘If you’re interested in making a difference, please sign up for a team.’”

“We had a tremendous response,” says Buckley. “We have teams today that meet every month.”

Five teams each working on Education, Housing & Economic Development, Community Betterment, Youth, and Health & Social Services have spearheaded a number of significant accomplishments from their first Monday monthly meetings at Brown County Middle School. This year, Brown County hosted its second Back to School Fair, featuring free physicals and immunizations, haircuts, backpacks, and schools supplies for returning students in need. The county was annexed into a mass transit district, making buses available to take senior citizens to doctor appointments in neighboring towns. The education action team recently completed a survey of Brown County teachers on recruitment and retention.

“Our Youth team is putting the finishing touches on a skate park,” says Buckley.

“We have provided a $10,000 grant to the United Way of Brown County to fund action team projects,” Buckley explains. “I’d like to say that it was all my idea, but in truth the initiative has been successful because of the unselfish collaboration of many organizations and the people that both live and work in the county.”

Last year, the TFF made a grant to employ Dr. Mark Edgar of the Illinois Public Health Institute to produce a Brown County Community Progress Report, which will track selected indicators within the identified issue areas.

“If it’s going to move up to the next level, we need to have someone in place that gets up every morning and thinks about how we can make Brown County better,” Buckley says.

With a rising generation of Tracy philanthropists and new leaders participating in the action teams, the Tracy Family Foundation and Brown County won’t have to look very far.

To learn more about the Tracy Family Foundation and its work, visit its website.