Effective Family Philanthropy: The Woodcock Foundation

Woodcock founder Polly Guth with Oran Hesterman, founder of the Fair Food Network who advised Woodcock on its food program

The Evolution of the Woodcock Foundation: A Progressive Family Funder Branches Out

Polly W. Guth was an heir to one of the founders of the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. She was also an active philanthropist, heavily involved in groups like Planned Parenthood of New York City and Asia Society. In 1996, Guth founded the Woodcock Foundation, which has awarded over $80 million to more than 100 organizations and enterprises.

Today, the Woodcock Foundation has a strong reputation as a progressive funder, focusing on social enterprises and economic development, food systems, conservation and biodiversity, democracy and media, gender equality and civil society. The small board is led by Guth’s children, as well as several non-family members. Woodcock also has three staff, including Executive Director Stacey Faella, who started at the organization more than a decade ago as an intern.

Though Woodcock intentionally chose a foundation name that wouldn’t wave the family banner, it is very much a family foundation, now moving from a second generation to a third. I recently spoke with Faella, as well as second-generation family members Jeremy Guth and Stuart P. Davidson, to learn more about the early days of the foundation, its evolution, and Woodcock’s current approach in areas like impact investment and conservation.

Over the course of these conversations, it became clear that this is a funder with a strong set of core values and focus areas, but also one that isn’t afraid to push itself — recently committing to increase all grants by 10% for the year to adjust for the impact of inflation on grantees. Here is the story of the Woodcock Foundation.

Two brothers help lead the second generation

Brothers Jeremy Guth, based in Toronto, and Stuart Davidson, in the Bay Area, recall being asked by their mother to join Woodcock. As the youngest of the second generation, Guth says he was about 30 when he joined. “When my mom started the foundation, it wasn’t like she made the money. She felt extremely obligated to give back and share in the good fortune that she had. And she instilled those values in her kids.”

Guth, who grew up on a farm, was immediately drawn to the foundation’s environmental work. Starting at the 30,000-foot level, he didn’t expect to become as hands-on with the foundation’s work as he did. His siblings Stuart and Lindsay Shea attended Rockefeller Foundation’s The Philanthropy Workshop (TPW) with Jackie Novogratz before she started Acumen, the famed nonprofit investment fund focused on alleviating global poverty. “They brought a lot of her thinking and ideas back with them to the foundation and inspired all of us,” Guth says.

This helps explain why Woodcock placed early bets in the social venture space, backing organizations like Acumen and REDF, another investor in social enterprises.

Davidson, a veteran Silicon Valley investor, remembers first joining the foundation in the early or mid-1990s. He had already been involved with other charitable boards, including a theater, which provided an early training ground. “It was an interesting exposure to seeing what boards do. And are they just a sales force trying to raise money? Or is there some governance? Or is there maybe a bit of each?” Davidson says.

Overall, Davidson and Woodcock now place a large emphasis on empowering practitioners — the people on the ground doing the work. Woodcock’s job is to find these figures, but also to look downstream and find future leaders they can invest in through fellowship programs like Acumen Fellows. Working hands-on with these fellowships also benefited Davidson, who started to get the lay of the land on causes and the leaders spearheading them, he says.

Large foundations typically have targeted missions, executed by program officers who often operate in separate silos, Davidson notes. “It almost seems like you had to get the world to conform to that theory of change, and not the other way around.” This also impacts grantees, creating pressure in how they report. So Woodcock instead puts emphasis on practitioners.

For instance, the foundation tapped Oran Hesterman, who was working in food systems and rural development for W.K. Kellogg Foundation. At Woodcock, he functioned as a quasi program officer and founded Fair Food Network, a national nonprofit and investor that grows community health and wealth through food. “He was a practitioner himself. And then he started a fellows program for people innovating in the food systems world,” Davidson says.

A leader in connectivity conservation

Jeremy Guth played a leading role in creating ARC Solutions, a good example of the kind of social venture work that Woodcock digs into. ARC stands for animal road crossings, including overpasses, tunnels, viaducts and culverts that support what’s known as “connectivity conservation.”

“Driving north from Los Angeles towards Ventura, you’re on a highway that has 300,000 vehicles on it a day. Nonstop. 24/7. So that effectively creates a barrier between the Los Padres and Santa Monica Mountains. Mountain lions, for example, very rarely successfully cross. Most don’t try at all.” Guth says.

A U.S. Federal Highway Administration study reported that there are approximately 1 million to 2 million collisions between cars and large mammals every year in America. These crossings create a fractured landscape, where, if conditions change on one side, animals are stuck, leading to genetic isolation and a fundamental crisis for biodiversity.

Guth looked at solutions that were already out there, including private land conservation and the creation or expansion of parks. Then, around two decades ago, Woodcock Foundation started supporting the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which works between Canada and the United States across 2,100 miles. When he learned that Parks Canada built a series of crossing structures in their mountain parks, he wanted to bring these structures to day-to-day landscapes around the world.

“It basically eliminates roadkill, which is an unusual good story in the otherwise depressing world of conservation. So we thought, let’s see if we can find someone who has their foot in both the design world and in the world of conservation, and field a design competition.” Guth says.

Out of this thinking, ARC Solutions was born, and kicked off with International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design in 2010, which aimed to improve upon the crossing model pioneered by Parks Canada. Guth says his work with ARC is a great example of how foundations can provide the best value-add and lean into risk capital while bringing together actors from multiple disciplines.

One of ARC competition’s advisers, renowned Canadian ecologist and landscape architect Nina-Marie Lister, is now Guth’s wife. He says he’s learned a great deal from Lister, including having the courage to bring thoughts on connectivity conservation to Harvard. “It gave me affirmation that what I do as a philanthropist is actually valuable, and is actually teachable,” Guth adds.

Today, ARC continues to work for leading-edge solutions to human and wildlife mobility and long-term landscape connectivity, including the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing outside of Los Angeles. ARC is currently working with CalTrans on a prototype recycled plastic bridge with carbon fibers. “Yes, philanthropy should help finance impact investments. But it should also help facilitate the development of impact investments, particularly in the field of biodiversity.”

Woodcock’s evolution and looking ahead

Executive Director Stacey Faella started working part time at the foundation last decade while getting her MPA from NYU. She shadowed the foundation’s then-executive director, who later offered her the job in 2015. Faella is proud of the foundation’s evolution since she first joined, and was keen to talk about Woodcock’s work in impact investing and its recent embrace of trust-based philanthropy. “I’ve learned from the trustees, really, the sense of wanting to be a good partner for a grantee,” she says.

Faella also mentions that late founder Polly Guth wrote a letter that specifically left the question of perpetuity up to the next generation. Right now, Woodcock’s advisors are managing the endowment (the foundation held some $82 million in assets at the end of the 2020 fiscal year) with perpetuity as the goal for now. But the lack of a mandate has allowed a lot of flexibility, Faella says, to give more than the 5% annual minimum. “We’ve been able to be more creative and flexible in structuring our impact investing without having to be quite as concerned about fiduciary responsibility in certain cases,” she explains. This nimbleness has allowed Woodcock to really lean into its impact investment spirit.

Guth adds that there’s a good mix within the foundation of individual interests and collective interests. Woodcock’s food systems, free press and democratic work are all shared. Other work, like gender equity and the environment are more individual. One trustee, Olga Merck Davidson, is a Princeton Ph.D. with an interest in Persian culture.

The Woodcock board meets on a quarterly cycle, and in the past few years, has been formalizing an investment committee process to align the portfolio with grantmaking. “What can you do with your endowment allocations that serve the needs of the endowment? That money has a job. It’s supposed to generate returns, keep the lights on and to generate a grant budget. But beyond that, what else can it also do?” Davidson says.

The foundation launched its democracy program in 2020. Prior to this work, the foundation had experimented with criminal justice funding, supporting groups like the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Ultimately, the trustees had a lot more enthusiasm about democracy work, particularly wanting to step up during the first year of the pandemic. But the foundation also wanted to avoid the trappings of progressive funders that sometimes get caught up in boom-and-bust funding cycles.

“Our board made a commitment to sticking with our democracy budget at the same level each year instead of tying it to elections. And then within that, in 2020, we also needed to rethink our commitment to racial equity,” Faella says.

Woodcock also runs a gender equality program. One of these grantees, Oakland-based Beats Rhymes and Life, bears the name of the fourth album by A Tribe Called Quest, and uses hip-hop therapy to help young men of color. Lifelong hip-hop fan Rob Jackson launched the organization in 2011, initially focusing on school-based programming before pivoting into mental health, juvenile justice, probation and more. Jackson describes Woodcock as the “ideal funder.”

“They didn’t just write a check and go away. They’ve continued to provide us support, empowering us to say, ‘Giving us a check is great, but we expect more of you, and how you show up for our community, and how you show up for our youth.’ Woodcock really sets that precedent. And it helps me as a founder,” Jackson says.