Funder Spotlight: The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation’s Arts and Environment Giving

Ashepoo River in South Carolina. Matthew Orselli/shutterstock

IP Funder Spotlights offer quick rundowns of the grantmakers that are on our radar, including a few key details on how they operate and what they’re up to right now. Today, we take a look at a foundation established by a printing executive and conservationist that supports organizations based in the Chicago region and the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

What this funder cares about

Founded in 1952, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation (GDDF) awards grants to support land conservation, artistic vitality, and regional collections (museums, libraries and more) for residents in the Chicago region and the Lowcountry of South Carolina, the two areas where the couple lived. The foundation has offices in Chicago and Charleston.

Its land conservation grantmaking program supports organizations that protect natural lands through policy, planning and advocacy, while its arts and cultural giving mostly entails general operating support for professional organizations to help build their capacity and build audiences.

While the foundation’s support for collections has traditionally focused on organizations like museums and libraries, its new “Broadening Narratives” initiative expands its purview to include community centers, small, culturally specific organizations, schools and churches. As of 2020, the foundation had $200 million in assets.

Why you should care

If we’re being honest, readers in locales that aren’t the greater Chicago region or the Lowcountry of South Carolina may not have a huge reason to care. Having said that, the foundation is making some interesting moves and setting a compelling example in how it’s supporting arts and culture, in particular (see “Broadening Narratives,” below). And for those in the region, GDDF is an important player to watch.

Perhaps the biggest reason to care is the funder’s penchant for general operating support. We’ve devoted a lot of coverage to funders’ reluctance to provide this kind of support, much to the dismay of nonprofits. And while many grantmakers pivoted to flexible support in the early days of the pandemic, there’s no guarantee this trend will continue.

According to the foundation’s recent grants database, in 2020, it awarded 157 grants totaling $5.4 million. Of that giving, 92 grants (60% of all grants) and $2.9 million (54% of total funding) were classified as “general operations.” Most of these grants fell within the Artistic Vitality priority area.

Where the money comes from

Gaylord Donnelley (1910-1992) was the president and board chairman of R.R. Donnelley, the largest supplier of commercial printing and allied services in the United States. His grandfather, Richard Robert Donnelley, founded the company in 1864.

Donnelly received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, studied philosophy at Cambridge University in England, and was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, serving in 11 major Pacific engagements during World War II. He was wounded in action and received the Purple Heart.

He joined R.R. Donnelley full-time in 1932, becoming president in 1952. That same year, the Gaylord Donnelley Foundation was established with initial assets of $6,250 in Continental Oil Company stock. In 1984, the foundation was renamed the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

After retiring in 1975, Donnelly ramped up his conservation efforts. He and Dorthy gave Illinois 800 acres to establish the Donnelley-DePue Wildlife Area on the Illinois River and 6,000 acres along the Ashepoo River in South Carolina to the Nature Conservancy and the wetlands conservation nonprofit Ducks Unlimited, where Gaylord served as president. In a 1990 piece in the Chicago Tribune, outdoors writer John Husar dubbed Donnelley Illinois’s “most powerful, yet subtle sportsman/environmentalist.”

Where the money goes

The foundation’s site has a grants database dating back to 2019 that allows grantseekers to sort information and export the findings into Excel format. It’s a refreshing bit of functionality that isn’t as common as you may think in the world of funder websites.

The database shows similar amounts given toward its Land Conservation ($2.7 million) and Artistic Vitality ($2.4 million) programs, with Collections coming in at a distant third, at $325,000. The foundation gives more individual grants for Artistic Vitality, however, at 54% of the total. Of the total amount funded, $3.8 million (70%) supported organizations in the Chicago region, versus $1.6 million (30%) in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

The GDDF occasionally looks beyond its two geographic focus areas. For example, it previously provided Ducks Unlimited with a $200,000 grant to support the nonprofit’s advocacy work on a national level. “While support for place-based acquisition in our two regions is important, promoting the importance of federal, state and local funding programs ultimately provides even more conservation bang for the buck,” said Executive Director David Farren on Ducks Unlimited’s website.

Open door or barbed wire?

The foundation’s welcoming “For Grantees” page walks visitors through the grant application process for each of its three priority areas. For the Artist Vitality and Land Conservation areas, applicants can click links to check relevant guidelines, download a copy of an application, and log into the GDDF’s portal.

The foundation’s flagship collections initiative, “Broadening Narratives,” is by invitation only. But even here, the “barbed wire” metaphor doesn’t apply, as the site encourages interested parties to “contact the GDDF office in your region to start a conversation.” (We prefer to go with the “beaded curtain” metaphor.) The site also includes bios for staff and board directors, a news and insights section, and a financials page that links to 990s via Guidestar.

Latest big moves

The foundation recently made changes to two of its priority areas. It rolled out a new collections initiative, dubbed “Broadening Narratives,” which expands the definition of a collecting organization beyond museums and libraries to illuminate historically underrepresented groups and viewpoints.

The funder earmarked $750,000 for organizations whose collections “illustrate BIPOC communities, LGBTQ+ perspectives, working-class narratives and small community experiences.” In July, the GDDF announced its inaugural round of recipients, awarding a total of $579,000 to 10 organizations in its two focus regions. Organizations received grants ranging from $20,000 to $100,000 each.

The foundation also engaged with a consulting team to explore new opportunities in its land conservation strategy. The subsequent report, “Expanding the Toolbox of Land Conservation Strategies in Two Distinct Regions,” identified watershed approaches and climate resilience as two important areas of emphasis moving forward. 

One cool thing to know

There’s a chance you wouldn’t be reading about the GDDF were it not for Ernest Hemingway. (Bear with me, here.) Back in 1928, while running a dude ranch in Wyoming, an 18-year-old Gaylord befriended the avid outdoorsman Hemingway, who was working on his novel “A Farewell to Arms.” The friendship kindled Gaylord’s lifelong interest in environmental conservation. Thanks, Papa!