By Kerri Regan
story: Kerri Regan photos: provided by The McConnell Foundation
The McConnell Foundation Part 1
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The Sundial Bridge. Redding’s Freedom Festival fireworks spectacular. Renovation of the Cascade Theatre. Shasta Community Health Center.
Some of the North State’s most celebrated crown jewels exist today due to the generosity of a woman born in the early 1900s in a small mining camp near Yreka and her husband of half a century.
Humble roots and remarkable vision characterized the late Leah McConnell, founder of the philanthropic Redding-based McConnell Foundation. She and her husband, Carl, formed the foundation in 1964 and funded it with $60,000.
“It was a shell of a corporation – a vehicle to take their estates and fund the foundation,” explains Lee Salter, president and CEO of the foundation. Its directors were the McConnells, Leah’s brother, and their San Francisco-based attorney.
The month before Mr. McConnell died in 1985, his wife called Salter – then an attorney with Carr, Kennedy, Peterson and Frost – and asked him to review some documents for her. “She and I hit it off, personality-wise,” Salter says. “It became real apparent – there were two directors of this large foundation and both were over 80, so they needed additional directors.”
She chose Salter and her former brother-in-law for the board, and then added William B. Nystrom, their retired accountant. The foundation changed its principal place of business from San Francisco to Redding, and Mrs. McConnell started funding the foundation to the maximum allowable amount, tax-wise: 30 percent of her income. Between 1985 and 1988, she poured $5 million into the foundation.
Then in 1988, Farmers Insurance Group was taken over in a leveraged buyout. McConnell’s estate, Carl McConnell’s two trusts and the foundation all held Farmers stock. That allowed the foundation to gain an additional $42 million before Leah’s death.
“With $2.5 million annually that they needed to pay out, we needed a program,” Salter explains.
Mrs. McConnell was open to hearing suggestions for areas of funding, so Salter began researching similar foundations. “I read a lot about what mistakes other foundations made,” he says.
Initially, they limited their giving to Shasta and Siskiyou counties, as the McConnells had property, businesses and roots in both places. She wanted to set up the foundation as a “general purpose” funder – meaning the giving wouldn’t be limited to a single area such as health care or the arts.
“Initially, we bought things,” Salter says. “Computers for schools, vans, fire trucks. We bought one of the first defibrillators for all the volunteer fire departments in Shasta and Siskiyou counties.”
Salter ran the first grant cycles out of his law office. “In the good old days, he’d come in on a Saturday afternoon and say ‘yes, no, yes, no, here’s a check,” says Shannon Phillips, vice president of operations for the McConnell Foundation. “As it got bigger, we needed more of a litmus test.”
Salter handled Mrs. McConnell’s personal business as well as the foundation’s, and her personal contributions – before she began funding through the foundation – were all anonymous, to the tune of several million dollars each year. But she didn’t always get her way. One time, the board was voting on whether to buy the Bank of America building in Burney and donate it to Mayers Memorial Hospital for what is now the Intermountain Community Center. She was the lone dissenting vote.
“We told her that in a couple of years she’d think it was a great project,” Salter says. They were right. It now houses a senior nutrition program, day care, teen center, outreach, county services and more. “It’s one of the best grants we’ve done,” Salter says.
The vault door from that bank is now at the McConnell Foundation headquarters on Shasta View Drive, which wasn’t the original site chosen for the headquarters – the board had planned to build it on the bluffs until Mrs. McConnell decided Lema Ranch, which she also owned, was a better fit.
Though Mrs. McConnell died in 1995 and was unable to see the headquarters completed in the fall of 1997, her will and trust provided the property and capital to complete and maintain the buildings. “It’s not foundation money – it’s her money,” Salter says. Adds Phillips: “It takes nothing away from the charitable side.”
In its earliest days, the foundation focused largely on health care and social services. That evolved into a push for environmental education. Now, its grant program sends money to the Shasta Regional Community Foundation, whose groups re-grant it.
Mrs. McConnell gave her seat on the board to Dee Domke in the early 1990s. “She got tired of these board meetings,” Salter says. “She’d say, ‘I’m not going to sit here all day and listen to you talk.’”
After all, there was work to be done.
Next up: A look at some of the projects – large and small – funded by the McConnell Foundation.