By Maria Oldiges, Executive Assistant and Development Associate at Presidio Graduate School
This year, the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation has funded a special Presidio Graduate School project to develop a three-day curriculum and training in Investing in Local, Sustainable Economies. Spearheaded by PGS Faculty Member Vanessa Fry (C4) and the Solidago Foundation’s Jeff Rosen, the training will be unveiled at June’s BALLE conference in Phoenix and piloted in Oakland this fall.
PGS isn’t a typical kind of grantee for the Stokes Foundation, which generally focuses on New Mexico, New England, and Florida, and rarely funds school training. Nevertheless, this is actually the third time Stokes has supported PGS. In 2011, Stokes supported the development of PGS’s Market Failures and the Regulatory Environment course, and in 2012, it funded the reimagining of PGS’s Capital Markets course.
The driving force behind this unusual Stokes/PGS partnership is Stokes Trustee Tom Willits. To Tom, the two organizations share an aligned vision: to achieve a more just and sustainable world, new economic design is necessary. And Tom doesn’t usually let anything get in his way, including foundation policy.
Tom is the co-founder of MRW Connected, a mission-driven web communications company, 1% for the Planet member, and winner of BCorp’s 2014 Best for the World Worker Impact award. Tom also founded Music and Poetry Synchronized, an arts organization that brings together poetry by New York City students and music by students at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School in Massachusetts. To boot, Tom also recently survived cancer. And that’s just during the last decade of his 30 year career.
Tom’s commitment to social justice, equity, and health is a legacy that has deep roots in his family. In 1959, Tom’s grandmother Lydia Babbott Stokes began the eponymous foundation which originally focused on education, women’s issues, arts, and the environment. The foundation now prioritizes its giving in the areas of local and sustainable food systems and new economic design. The trustees of the Stokes Foundation are guided by the same Quaker ethic that guided Lydia B. Stokes—that is, they value social justice and helping people help themselves. Their decision-making follows a consensus model, and they share a belief in the mission and priorities of the foundation.
Under Tom’s leadership, Stokes has also taken a position at the leading edge of foundation investment strategy.
With the assistance of financial advisors at Clean Yield, the foundation places 25% of their endowment into program-related investments (PRI) and loans. The foundation has no paid staff and relies on its small board of trustees to oversee and execute its operations. It also grants above the 5% minimum annual payout mandated for foundations, believing that immediate action is necessary to meet the severity of the challenges facing the world today.
Tom and his fellow trustees are troubled by the increasing abstraction of financial capital and value, a phenomenon that presents higher risks to people and to the market as a whole. By moving 25% of their investments out of the stock, equities, and derivatives markets, they have moved the foundation’s money closer to tangible value and, in the process, marry their endowment with their mission. While conventional foundation management tenets might identify this as a risky path, Stokes has expected and realized solid financial performance with their overall portfolio. Despite—or perhaps thanks to—being a small foundation, the foundation has been able to not only fund resilience-focused projects, but to operate as one, too. The trustees consider their investment strategy as a mitigation of risk, and as one that makes them more adaptive to whatever changes may be in store for the national and worldwide economy in the future.
The strategy and funding priorities of the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation reflect an effort to get “closer to the ground.” Tom believes that our world has moved too far from the ground in many senses—as individuals living lives removed from soil and tactile experiences with the earth and also in an institutional and metaphysical sense. Funding efforts to cultivate thriving local economies—particularly those centered around food—is one way the Tom and the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation try to bring people and communities closer together on the ground.
Maria Oldiges is Development Associate and Executive Assistant at Presidio Graduate School. When not at PGS, she can be found taking care of her worms or singing karaoke. Among other things, she is passionate about transformative justice, Latin music, and learning. She has gone skinny-dipping on five continents, and aspires to one day develop a recipe for truly organic Cheetos.