Change Within Tradition: The Hattie M. Strong Foundation

Seven decades after its founding in 1928, the Hattie M. Strong Foundation was, at least by some measures, significantly different from the small organization established by its founder and namesake. In its early years, the foundation had largely confined itself to awarding a small number of annual no-interest loans to needy and talented college students. Fifty years after the death of its founder in 1950, the foundation was not only awarding almost 10 times as many loans but was also making some 50 grants each year to non-profit groups involved in improving education at any level. At its founding, the foundation board had been confined to family members. Over time, family members of the board became a small minority. In its early years, the foundation complemented its student loans with gifts to colleges and universities across the United States. After the mid-1960s, it continued to make loans to students from across the US—but confined its other forms of giving to the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

 

Note: This case study was written and released in 2001 as part of NCFP’s Living the Legacy guide; current circumstances at the foundation may be different than described here.

Yet, the evolution of this small, family-established foundation had occurred in an atmosphere which board members themselves considered traditional and conservative. Board meetings reviewed proposals by comparing them against the specific language of the foundation’s goals spelled out in its documents of incorporation. Notwithstanding occasional discussions of philanthropic philosophy involving the foundation’s board chairman and its staff, there were no sharp divides on the board, nor protracted, fractious meetings. The foundation believed its role was both clear and useful. Outside of one exceptional period, change at the Strong Foundation had been gradual and self-consciously tied to what could plausibly be said to be the interests and wishes of the founder. It was a foundation whose board considered it to have been run successfully, according to the interests that had prompted its formation.

Founder and Goals

Founded in 1928 with a donation from its namesake of $540,000, The Hattie M. Strong Foundation’s approach to philanthropy could be traced not only to instructions left by its founder but to its founder’s own dramatic life experiences, which shaped her ideas. Born into a well-to-do Connecticut family in 1864, Hattie Maria Corrin was well-educated in private schools. It was an education which, say family members, she always believed served her well through a long series of reverses and struggles that followed in the wake of the financial panic of 1877, her father’s subsequent death, and the sharp decline in the family’s fortunes. After having to move in with relatives and help support the household by giving piano lessons, Hattie Strong married and moved to Tacoma in the then Territory of Washington—where her husband would abandon her, leaving her with little money and a young son to support. Strong went north for the Alaska gold rush, supporting herself as a physicians’ assistant and later as a steamship ticket agent in Skagway. Poor health forced her to return to Tacoma and—notably—then to use the small savings she’d put aside for her son Corrin’s education to relocate to southern California, in hopes of convalescing. It was there in 1905 that she met and married Henry Alvah Strong, co-founder and president of what became the Eastman Kodak company. In the words of the Strong Foundation’s official “brief biography,” she then “made the transition from a life of struggle and hardship to one of considerable luxury.”

In 1928, that transition included the founding of the Hattie M. Strong Foundation. Its certificate of incorporation established goals both broad and specific. The foundation, it broadly states, should expend its “income and principal… in the promotion of the welfare of society by assisting such religious, educational, charitable and philanthropic work or organizations as may be deemed worthy.” But Hattie Strong’s recollection of the value of her own education and the difficulty she had once had in saving money for that of her son led to more specific goals as well, for her foundation. It should, “so far as practicable, supply funds to young men and women of promise with which they may obtain adequate academic, technical, and professional education.” At its inception, the realization of these goals was to be the responsibility of a board of trustees which comprised five members, all from the extended Strong family, all chosen by Hattie herself, as is the prerogative of the foundation’s chair: Hattie, her son Corrin, Corrin Strong’s wife Alice and her twin brother A.B. Trowbridge, and Paul Achilles, husband of Mrs. Strong’s stepdaughter and an official at Yale University.

In its early years, the foundation’s general goals took two tangible forms in practice: interest-free loans to college students—by 1940, it had made 606—and, to a lesser extent, donations to specific colleges and universities. Its style was personal, both in its relationship with those it was helping and in the choice of institutions being helped. “In many ways, the foundation was just a convenient way to organize the sort of giving that Hattie had already been doing,” recalls Barbara Cantrell, whose mother Gay Bowers was the lone, original aide to Mrs. Strong during the 1930s. (The staff hardly grew larger at all during Mrs. Strong’s tenure, expanding only to two during the World War II years.) Because it built on Mrs. Strong’s previous, personal giving, the foundation chose to emphasize regular, personal communication with its loan recipients. Those being helped would be required to write quarterly to the foundation and would receive personal notes in return. “I’ll never forget the times I got letters asking for all kinds of advice, including ‘what should I do, I’m pregnant,” recalls Barbara Cantrell. A bulletin board at the foundation’s office was graced by pictures of all loan recipients. In time, as it grew, this emphasis on close, personal contact with loan recipients—on the part of a foundation which itself had the feel of an extended family—would exert a crucial influence on the foundation’s direction.

The foundation’s other giving, too, reflected the personal interests of Mrs. Strong and, over time, those others whom she invited to serve, in terms of three years, on the board of trustees. (According to the foundation’s bylaws, the founder had the right to appoint the first board; thereafter the board technically elected its members and had the legal authority to remove them. In practice, the board would defer to the wishes of the chair.) Mrs. Strong ‘s special interest in women’s education led her to make donations earmarked for the construction of women’s-only dormitories at schools throughout the US— Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC and George Washington University, in Washington, among others—on the proviso that there would always be a room available for her, should she choose to visit. The foundation, too, became a vehicle for other trustees to contribute to colleges and universities, often to their own alma maters. Mrs. Strong, who had lived with her husband in Rochester, NY, followed her son to Washington in the late 1920s, following her husband’s death. As she became well known in her adopted home of Washington, Mrs. Strong successfully convinced a series of politically and socially prominent Washingtonians to join the board—by 1948, family members no longer formed a majority. At that time there were eight members of the board, only three of whom came from the Strong family. Four other positions were unfilled. Notable new members included two members of the Supreme Court, Justice Harold H. Burton (on the board from 1946-1964) and Justice Harlan Stone (1931-1946), as well as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1945-53). As it had been a vehicle through which to organize her own personal giving, so did it serve for these newcomers. “Institutions of their choice would receive a regular annual check,” recalls Mrs. Strong’s grandson, Henry “Hank” Strong, who would ultimately succeed as board chairman and foundation president. “Maybe a dozen colleges getting $5,000 a year.” Upon their deaths, the foundation would make an additional donation as a memorial, in some cases.

Family-Plus

All board members, whether family members or not, owed their appointments to Mrs. Strong who, in conjunction with her son, ran the organization with a strong hand. Observes grandson Hank Strong, “I don’t think she ever felt that it was a family foundation in any way—it was Hattie’s foundation.” There is no record of dispute, even when she undertook new projects which might, arguably, have been controversial—most notably her decision, at the end of World War II, to direct college scholarship, not loan, funds specifically for the use of the children of Japanese-American families who had been interred during World War II. “She was quite outraged by that,” recalls Barbara Cantrell. Moreover, an arrangement in which a family member served as the foundation’s leader and was advised by non-family board members with an interest in the foundation’s mission, was clearly the model which Mrs. Strong preferred. At one of the board of trustees’ earliest meetings (October 28, 1928), it had been resolved that “Chairman of board should be a direct descendant of founder.”

In keeping with that precept, the chairmanship passed, after Hattie Strong’s death (in 1950, in her room at Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC, in one of the women’s dormitories whose construction she had supported), to her son Corrin. Like his mother, Corrin Strong—who had risen to the rank of colonel during his Army service in World War II and would go on to a career in foreign affairs and diplomacy—pushed the foundation in ways which were both personal and tied to the original goals.

An organizer of the Marshall Plan (1946-47) to help rebuild post-war western Europe, Corrin Strong—who would, like his mother, serve both as the board chairman and foundation president, moved the foundation in a new direction linked to the goals of the founder but also a reflection of the post-war internationalist spirit extant in Washington. The foundation’s loan program had been rapidly expanding—from some 25 new loans a year when the program started to about 200, an increase coincident with the end of World War II and the historic rush of ex-GI’s into colleges and universities. Now, the foundation would expand the mission of the loan program to assist foreign students studying in the US Just as Hattie Strong’s personal interests had shaped the foundation’s activities—centered around its focus on education—so would her son’s interest in international affairs shape the foundation during his chairmanship/presidency.

The importance of the chairman in shaping the foundation’s initiatives was made clear from the fact that the board voted to proceed with the new focus on foreign students, notwithstanding logistical difficulties posed by the new effort. How, for instance, in an era before easy electronic communication, could it maintain its tradition of regular personal contact with students once they returned to their home countries? Currency controls, limiting the ability of students to send payments out of their countries, could make loan repayment difficult or impossible. So it was that, shortly after Corrin Strong took over from his late mother, the board of trustees reaffirmed that it was “the policy of the foundation to lend money, without interest, to worthy young people of any race or creed, hoping and expecting that when they area financially able they will return it in small payments so that some other worthy student might have the use of it.” But the board, at the same (January 6, 1950) meeting, was reminded by Corrin Strong that foreign students might be “unable to repay money advanced them due to difficult rate of exchange—and thus would have to be aided not through loans but—as with the Japanese-American students on whom Mrs. Strong herself had focused—through scholarships. The board agreed, resolving “to accept more foreign students (with) the number to be left to the discretion of the Officers.” The chairman, then as later, had the discretion to propose one-time grants (not loans), whether to individuals or institutions, of up to $25,000. Thus, Corrin Strong had some latitude to pursue his internationalist interests. These would go beyond financial aid to students. Active in the Eisenhower presidential campaign in 1952, he was named Ambassador to Norway (1954-58) where he established an exchange program for American students to study at the University of Oslo, which he funded personally. (After his death in 1966, funding for this program was provided by the foundation.) Later—under the influence of Corrin Strong, A.B. Trowbridge and Strong’s son Peter (the youngest of Colonel Strong’s three sons and the president of the Scandinavian-American Foundation)—the Strong Foundation took up the funding of various exchange programs. “We really got into a kick on international education,” says Hank Strong. Events had influenced the Strong Foundation—but not pushed it in ways that could be termed a sharp departure from the announced vision of its founder.

Automatic Pilot

The emphasis on non-US students proved relatively short-lived, however. The repayment and communication complications proved serious enough that the foundation’s interest waned, though it did not altogether disappear. Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, the foundation continued to make its loans to students with “promise” and grants to select colleges and universities. Staff members who had served Mrs. Strong largely continued on the course she had set, with but modest changes. For instance, in 1960, the upper limit for student loans was increased from $3,000 to $4,000, to be used over a two-year period. There was no consideration of dramatic new directions for the foundation. “It was basically on automatic pilot,” says Hank Strong, who, in 1967, would succeed his father, Corrin Strong, as chairman and president.

Re-Energizing the Foundation and the Board

In 1967, Henry “Hank” Strong—the third generation of Strongs to head the foundation— became chairman in large part because of his willingness to take on the position, as well as the fact that, alone among his three brothers, he was living in Washington. He turned to the position with a burst of energy. There was no requirement that the chairman serve as president—i.e., chief operating officer—but Hank Strong became the third chairman to do so. “It seemed like a great tradition to me, and I was determined to keep it going,” says Strong. In doing so, Hank Strong found himself guided by the specific words of the founder, with their emphasis on help for young people of “promise.” “That’s our Bible,” he observes. To re-energize the foundation’s role as an education-oriented institution, Strong set out to recruit Washingtonians with education experience to bring new blood to the board, whose potential membership would be increased in 1967 from 12 to 15. He successfully brought onto the board three Washington-area educators, Bennetta Washington, wife of then-Washington mayor Walter Washington, Olive Covington, a retired teacher and administrator from the District of Columbia public schools, and Vincent Reed, the former Washington Superintendent of Schools. The three were the first African-Americans to sit on the foundation board. Their presence—which brought the total board membership to 11, six of them non-family (tipping the balance again toward non-family members) reflected Hank Strong’s desire to turn the foundation’s attention toward Washington, DC in a more concerted way.

Strong moved to terminate the remaining funding for foreign students, which had been provided through gifts to the Institute for International Education. Not only was Strong concerned that the foundation could have repayment problems (indeed, loan repayment rates were, in fact, lower for non-US students), but he was not convinced that the assistance helped the cause of cross-cultural understanding which had motivated it. “You particularly saw in some countries, where they had a strong traditional of socialist-type government, students tended to come back and poor-mouth America and capitalism and all of that. I had some doubts about the value of what we were doing.” Moreover, at the time of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty, Strong was “conscious of the fact that we had a lot of needy American people right in our own backyard.”

Strong also had grave doubts about the value of the foundation’s small, regular contributions to colleges and universities, most of which had been earmarked for financial aid programs. “Giving $10,000 to some place like the University of Washington is such a drop in the bucket,” he says. “I was looking for a way to have a greater impact.” The schools were given three years notice of an impending cutoff of funds. “We had some debate,” recalls Hank Strong, “as to whether we should continue the grants to the various colleges and universities, as she (Hattie) had done. We decided that was probably not the most effective way to use the money.”

New Directions

As he set about to reinvigorate the foundation, Hank Strong did not set out to make any changes in its loan program. He did not believe, for instance, his grandmother would have wanted to limit the loans to any specific geographic area of the United States. After all, the statement of incorporation did not geographically circumscribe its target: young people of promise. But Strong did want to direct attention to Washington. His vehicle would be the foundation’s growing pool of funds available for grants—the funds which had been the source for the gifts to colleges and universities. The combination of growing assets and the continued cap on the number of student loans led to an increasing pool of grant funds. It was an entirely unexpected event, however, which would guide Strong and his board in the dispersal of those funds.

In April 1968, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a devastating riot broke out in Washington, centered along 14th Street, the traditional commercial district of black Washingtonians. The riot touched a deep chord of civic responsibility in Hank Strong. Even in the immediate aftermath, he and foundation staff members went into the riot zone to distribute powdered milk and other emergency assistance. In the months after, Strong steered the foundation toward an entirely new sort of grantmaking—grants, for instance, to community groups pledging to do something, not always entirely specified, to help rebuild the riot zone. The upright, somewhat old-fashioned Strong found himself in some strange alliances. There was a self-styled Colonel, who fancied himself as the leader of the People’s Liberation Army of Washington—and who regularly arrived at the foundation’s office carrying automatic weapons and accompanied by bodyguards. Among other projects, he ran an unauthorized, non-legal methadone maintenance program. There was a group called Build Black, which promoted the idea of the establishment of black-owned businesses in the former riot zone. Grants to these and other groups led Hank Strong to places he’d not have been apt to go—drinking Coke and vodka on the corner with one grantee group, for instance—but, after three years—“when the crisis seemed to have passed”—Strong took stock and decided he’d been engaged in “ill-advised adventurism.” The grants to the community-rebuilding groups—all of which had been approved, at Strong’s recommendation, by the board of trustees—were discontinued, as was a grant supporting a pilot program providing training for inmates at Washington’s Lorton Reformatory who wanted to get their high school equivalency degrees. “That was education,” observes Strong, “but it wasn’t clear whether you could say that convicted felons were young people of promise. At any rate, the city did take that program over.”

A New Mix

Hank Strong’s mark on the Strong Foundation would be made through the expanded, Washington-focused grants program which began in earnest once the “adventurism” of the late ‘60s had passed. As a 1997 foundation report would put it:

It soon became evident that, while we did some useful work in the immediate aftermath of the riots (and met some pretty colorful characters), we were scattering our limited resources too widely. Over the next several years, a series of decisions were made to focus our efforts on the educational needs of the Washington community and we began the (never-ending) process of refining the focus of the Grant Program on areas in which we could develop some expertise and have a measurable impact.

Broadly, the foundation was working out grantmaking guidelines it believed fit its founder’s objectives as well as current conditions. Although the types of grant recipients would change, the precedent, set in the late 1960s, of small, “retail” grantmaking would hold. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, grants, as a percentage of the foundation’s annual payout increased. In 1971, for instance, the foundation made $353,000 in grants, compared with $460,000 in student loans. In 1972, its $440,000 in grants virtually equaled its $537,000 in students. Over time, loans would again become more dominant—but aggressive small grant-making would continue. To implement this more grant-intensive vision of the foundation, the staff was very modestly increased—from four in the late 1960s to six by 1999. Just as important, the foundation would hire a staff member with professional experience in the world of non-profit fundraising and grant solicitation. Judith Cyphers, named director of grants in 1991, came to the foundation after a career in fund-raising for both universities and public television. She was hired to further implement Hank Strong’s vision of a Washington and education-oriented Strong Foundation and would actively solicit and review grant applications. The fashioning of guidelines for the grants reflected an ongoing conversation between Hank Strong—always keeping the charge from his grandmother in mind—and Cyphers (and, ultimately, with members of the board). Notwithstanding internal discussion on what sorts of initiatives to support, there was agreement that the shift of focus toward the city of Washington had meant a shift of focus toward children from poor families in low-performing school districts, with assistance to be provided by small, often very local organizations.

Its emergence as a community-oriented education foundation gave it a higher profile in the city—and Strong moved to link the foundation to other community-oriented Washington foundations through a leadership role in the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. It not only attended meetings at which the grants made by various foundations were discussed but even, on occasion, moved, arguably, back to its riot-era approach: responding to overwhelming crisis. For instance, as the combination of crack cocaine use and the AIDS epidemic devastated low-income Washington, the Strong Foundation joined a group of grantmakers in assisting AIDS treatment facilities.

At the same time, the foundation’s trademark loan program continued, with what were viewed as appropriate adjustments. In 1975, the loan ceiling was raised to $5,000, for instance. In 1980, loans were restricted to the final year of a degree program. And in 1996, the loan limit was raised to $6,000, with the possibility of funds being used over a two-year period. From its inception in 1928 through 1999, the foundation loaned $16.9 million to 10,161 students. Repayments totaled $14.2 million. Its screening process clearly continued to seek to determine whether an applicant has “promise.” The confidential reference form which loan applicants were required to submit included questions as to “how efficient the applicant is in getting things done” and “how reliable the applicant is in fulfilling obligations.” Financial need, in other words, was not enough to identify a student of “promise.”


CHANGE AND CONTINUITY AT THE HATTIE M. STRONG FOUNDATION

The board and staff of the Hattie M. Strong Foundation have reflected on the donor’s legacy in a variety of ways over the years.

Refer back to the original intent:

  • Proposals are reviewed by comparing them against the specific language of the foundation’s incorporation.
  • Educational loans and grantmaking that meet the founder’s programmatic wishes are combined with grantmaking on the more community level, which follow the founder’s personal style.
  • The essential values of the Hattie M. Strong Foundation are discussed and passed on informally and within the context of the foundation’s work.

Take the time to respect the “culture” of the foundation:

  • There is a continuing effort to keep a personal touch to the loan program, even if that meant restricting its size.
  • Next generation board members might initially “toy” with the idea of radical change, but over time, they have grown to appreciate the traditions of the foundation and the wishes of the founder.
  • A family foundation connects trustees with ancestors – identify, communicate and celebrate “the continuity of values throughout generations that binds the essence or purpose of a family.”

Focus, focus, focus:

  • The values of the family legacy allow the foundation to focus its giving for greater leverage and impact.
  • The foundation, board, and leadership have learned to use mistakes and what came to be seen as extraneous grantmaking programs as learning experiences that have enriched the foundation’s pursuit of its essential mission.
  • Having and developing expertise in their areas of programmatic interest is very important, which is in part met by having a small-dedicated staff and distinguished, non-family trustees.

 Doing what we do in a smarter way:

  • There is a difference between a founder’s wishes and the way those wishes are carried out.
  • It is always useful to explore whether there are more efficient and effective ways to carry out program ideas.
  • Ask yourself whether the specific program meets both the founder’s legacy and the needs of the day. It may be that new and different programs would meet the donor’s legacy in a new and more useful way.

Prospects for the Future

As Hank Strong, age 77, approached retirement, the foundation he’d headed for more than 30 years had a total of $31.3 million in assets. Its six full-time staff members (Hank Strong considered that level “a little high for a foundation our size but necessary because the loan program is so labor intensive”) helped to disburse $499,000 in student loans and $235,000 in grants. Strong family members continued to be a minority of Strong Foundation board members—4 of 10 active members in spring 2000. Moreover, of the next generation of extended Strong family adults—numbering 15 in all—only four had expressed any interest in becoming actively involved in the foundation. All had been elected to the board, at Hank Strong’s recommendation They were his daughters Sigrid Strong Reynolds and Barbara Strong Doty (who served from 1981 through 1988), his niece Bente Strong, daughter of his brother Peter, and his son Henry L. Strong. Henry, in his eighth year on the board, recalled having toyed, at first, with the idea of pushing the foundation in “radical” new directions. He came, however, he says, to appreciate the traditions which had developed, the deference to the wishes of the founder, and the value of a specific niche.

“In our board discussions,” he says, “we’re always saying to the staff, ‘give me the logical linkage between what you proposed and what we’ve been doing’. If they can do it, it might go. But there’s an acid test in here. If we did it otherwise, we’d be in trouble. We already have more applicants for loans and grants than we can serve. If you expanded the definition, you’d just come to a stop. You couldn’t get anything done. Too many choices, you just can’t go anywhere.”

This did not mean, however, that no one in the Strong family was raising questions about the future of the foundation, some 70 years after its founding. Bente Strong, the newest member of the board, was concerned about the fact that the student loan program was still operated “by hand” and wondered, not only whether the program could be run more efficiently through the use of new technologies, but if there were “a more efficient/effective way to act on Hattie’s intentions. Our expenses are high. Perhaps we need to explore running it online or terminating the program and using our resources for ‘promising students’ in another way.”

Bente Strong was also concerned about “succession” issues. “My uncle (Hank Strong) doesn’t view this organization as a family foundation but if this isn’t, what is? I do view this as a family foundation (one with many outside board members, granted) and, as such, if a family member doesn’t take it on for the next generation, should this be the end of the organization?” Bente Strong by no means hoped so. “One positive side to any family foundation,” she observes, “is the connection it gives you to your ancestors—the continuity of values throughout generations that binds the essence or purpose of a family. Education is the thread that’s been expressed (in our case).”

The interest of Hank Strong’s son Henry, and his apparent willingness to follow in his father’s foundation footsteps, appeared to make his cousin Bente’s concerns about such questions moot—at least for the time being. As Henry Strong puts it: “It’s worked well for a long time and I think it can keep working.”

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