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Unpacking the JFN: Helen Bader Foundation might not give more grants this year

OK, down to unpacking.

I sat down Tuesday with Tobey Libber, the program officer who oversees Jewish programs at the Helen Bader Foundation.

The conversation happened after I saw him at a session and remarked that I had seen that the Milwaukee-based foundation had made a few grants in February, and that it was good to see that someone is still giving money away.

“Yeah. We’ll see how long that lasts,” he said.

The board of the foundation — which has at one time or another given money to every Jewish institution in Milwaukee, started a day school tuition initiative and gives even more money away to the greater Milwaukee community — meets twice a year, once in June and once in December.

The last meeting in December, “was the worst one I have ever been to. There is a real sense that the future is uncertain," he said.

“We may not make any more grants this fiscal year,” Libber said. (The foundation’s fiscal year runs from September 1 to August 31.)

He gave an example of a program that the foundatoin started in 2005 to create an employee insurance and benefits collective for the Jewish institutions in Milwaukee. The foundation sunk $300,000 into the porject.

“Whether the board would have the constitution to do that now? I don’t think so. I think the board is hunkering down now,” he said. “We’ve been telling our partner organizations that these are unusual times. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t be there for you later in the year.”

Libber said that he is suggesting that organizations prepare their grant requests for September and that they also focus more on short-term grants.

The foundation has five program officers who cover different focus areas. In December, they were told to cut down their lists a bit because the economy was falling. Then, the market tanked and they were told to pare down even further, Libber said.

The Helen Bader foundation is a "spend down" foundation, that is set to give away all of its money by 2020.

It was started in 1991 with $90 million. The foundation’s value peeked in 2006 at roughly $200 million. Since then, its value is down around 30-40 percent, according to Libber.

That means that even in a worse case scenario, the foundation still has $30 million more than it started with — and needs to spend it all within the next 11 years. So why hold back?

“This is the lens the board is using: What would Helen Bader like if she was alive today?” he said. “The fact is that she had the wisdom to set up this foundation. What is wise at the moment ? That might be that we hunker down. If you have to skip a giving cycle to make sure you have the ability to give in other cycles, you do it. We are on new turf here."

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