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John Mancasola Takes Over as President and CEO of The McConnell Foundation

06/26/2017 11:00AM ● By Jon Lewis

Public Spirit

July 2017
Story and Photo By Jon Lewis

John Mancasola freely admits he knew next to nothing about private foundations when he graduated from law school and embarked on what he figured would be a cut-and-dried career as an attorney.

He knows plenty now, after 26 years with the McConnell Foundation, the Redding-based philanthropic organization that has improved lives in the North State and around the world. 

“I have Mrs. McConnell to thank for that,” Mancasola says of his insight into the world of charitable giving, referring to the late Leah McConnell who, with her late husband, Carl, launched their eponymous foundation some 53 years ago. “I thank my lucky stars she came into my life.”

Earlier this year, Mancasola, 60, was named president and CEO of the McConnell Foundation. He replaced Lee Salter, the longtime president, who will oversee special projects on a part-time basis. Mancasola had been serving as executive vice president and in-house counsel.

Mancasola met Leah McConnell in the early 1990s, shortly before she became one of his clients while he was practicing law at Carr, Kennedy, Peterson and Frost. Mancasola joined the foundation board in 1991 and two years later he went to work for McConnell, splitting his time evenly between working for Leah and the foundation. He became a full-time employee of the foundation in 1995, when Leah passed away.

During those years he spent with Leah, Mancasola grew to respect and admire her business acumen. He attributed that keen mind and shrewd sense of value to her humble roots: Leah was born in Humbug, a mining camp in Siskiyou County, where her father was a hardrock miner. She grew up in Yreka and was working at a title company in Yreka when she met Carl, an Illinois native who moved to the area in the mid-1920s.

Leah wasn’t the only one in the family with a knack for business. Carl’s parents, both doctors in the Chicago area, had the foresight to help launch the Farmers Insurance Group back in 1928 with a $10,000 stock purchase.

The strength of that investment was realized in 1988 (three years after Carl’s death) when the Farmers stock holding was sold and Leah earned approximately $160 million. The following year, to reduce tax liabilities, Mancasola says Leah “collapsed” a trust and funneled the $42 million into the McConnell Foundation.

At that point, the charitable giving (which started on a small scale in 1964 with the Carl R. and Leah F. McConnell Foundation) began in earnest. When Leah McConnell died in 1995, the remainder of her estate was transferred to the foundation, increasing its asset base to about $250 million. Since then, despite the challenges posed by the recession, the foundation’s asset base has grown to $420 million.

In addition to her business sense, Leah had a strong urge to help others and she made the conscious decision to not set any parameters on the foundation’s giving. “There was nothing mandated in the five counties we give in,” Mancasola says. “Her personal giving was not focused, either. She supported a broad spectrum of causes.”

As a result of that philanthropic approach, the foundation branched into giving in Nepal and Laos. Mancasola says that shift occurred 20 years ago when foundation directors attended a Council on Foundations convention and were moved by the keynote speaker’s thoughts on giving in the international arena “and we took it to heart.” 

On the home front, Mancasola says the foundation moved from “giving away things like fire trucks” through its own grant application process and instead shifted that responsibility to the Shasta Regional Community Foundation, which it funds to the tune of about $750,000 a year.

In May, the Shasta Regional Community Foundation awarded $704,714 in grants to 39 organizations in Modoc, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity counties. Those grants brought the total awarded through its McConnell Fund to $8.7 million since the fund was established in 2001.

By allowing others to experience the grant-making experience and be involved in the decision making, Mancasola says the McConnell
Foundation hopes to leverage its own giving to create a culture of philanthropy throughout the North State.

The foundation’s own general grant programs have resulted in smaller, yet meaningful, projects throughout the region – expanding Golden Umbrella, building the Wagon Creek Bridge on Lake Siskiyou and supporting 4-H and FFA students are just three examples – as well as more significant landmarks like helping with restoration of the Cascade Theatre and, most notably, Turtle Bay Exploration Park and the Sundial Bridge.

Ongoing programs the foundation operates include a robust scholarship program that focuses on students who are the first in their family to attend college; College Options to help with the bewildering college application process; and major community projects like
the Redding School of the Arts campus, the Weed Community Center, and support of the Shasta Community Health Center and One SAFE Place.

Most recently, the foundation made downtown Redding a focus of its efforts and hired Rachel Hatch to direct its new program on community vitality. She will be working with downtown stakeholders on revitalization efforts, solutions for homelessness and other projects.

As president, Mancasola shoulders the responsibility for shepherding the foundation’s investments to ensure a rate of return that allows it to cover its operating expenses and meet the federal requirement to annually distribute at least 5 percent of its net worth. Fortunately, he says, he can draw on guidance from the foundation’s board of directors, which includes Salter, Doreeta Domke, William Cox and Robert Blankenship.

Sitting at the top of an organization with those kinds of resources and overseeing the investments required to both keep it solvent and support its charitable giving is a challenge, Mancasola says. “It’s incredibly hard work, and for me, it’s always on. That said, it’s ultimately rewarding. It can be incredibly frustrating and incredibly challenging, but ultimately, it’s incredibly rewarding.”