Funder’s Forum: The Endeavor Foundation A conversation with Julie J. Kidd

The Endeavor Foundation (formerly the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation) was established by Christian A. Johnson in 1952 to help others achieve their aspirations and make a contribution to society. Since its founding the foundation has focused attention primarily on the field of education in order to make a significant difference in independent liberal arts colleges. Foundation Center spoke with Julie J. Kidd, its president and daughter of the founder, about the foundation's grantmaking:

[Question] To what extent has the foundation's grantmaking evolved since your father founded it in 1952?

“Endeavor's grantmaking has always emanated from the principles by which my father lived his life. At the time of his death in 1964, he was focused in his foundation work on providing high quality educational opportunities for young people; on the development of an organic farm, believing that the use of artificial chemicals would gradually poison our environment; on the development of public television, believing that commercial television had the potential to become a negative influence on our society; and on the development of young talent in the arts. All of Endeavor's work over the years reflects in some way these interests and the passionately-held beliefs from which they emanated.”

[Question] What are the goals of your funding strategy? How do you know when you're successful?

“I am curious as to what people mean when they speak of a 'funding strategy.' The word strategy originally referred to military tactics and was later expanded to refer to games such as poker, chess, football, etc., where there would be a winner and a loser. It was expanded still further to include business plans where the goal was to outmaneuver the competition in what is often considered to be a zero sum game. Thus, I do not think of the mission or goals of a foundation in terms of strategy.

“Overall, though, our goal is to make the world a better place than it would otherwise be. We have chosen liberal education as our primary area of focus because it seems to us to be the most basic and influential area in which a foundation our size can make a difference. I must add, though, that this perspective is not a decision based merely on an intellectual analysis of where it makes the most sense to concentrate our resources. It is based, even more importantly, on a life-long passion for the challenges of what it means to educate each generation of young people, to educate them in a way that liberates them from narrow, prejudiced, and superstitious thinking and allows them to blossom into their best and most complete and positive selves, thus inspiring intellectual and emotional growth throughout their lives. What could be more important than this? This is a passion that I shared with my father as a young person and have continued to feel throughout my adult life.

“There are other current areas of focus for Endeavor as well, such as environmental issues, development of artists and arts organizations, and research into issues of trust and well-being in society as well as in individuals.

“You asked how we know if we are successful. There are no real measures of 'success,' whatever we may mean by that word. In Endeavor's brand of grantmaking, we can never consider a project finished and thus ready to be evaluated for success. All of our efforts are ongoing, and these challenges will be with us as long as this planet exists and humans exist upon it. On the micro level, though, we can talk with students who have been affected by the programs we support and see if they seem to be benefitting from the experience. We can see if the research that we support is inspiring to us and to others. In a few cases, though, the results are tangible, such as that of the National Museum of the American Indian, which we helped to create. Obviously, we can see it standing on the Mall in Washington and witness its exhibits and educational outreach programs. I believe that there is far too much emphasis today on 'metrics' and not nearly enough on basic human (or environmental) responses as evidence, what might be looked down upon as 'merely' anecdotal.”

[Question] How do you determine where to invest your funding when there are many worthy causes?

“We concentrate our funding where our passions lie. If one brings passion to one's work, the results will likely be more imaginative and nuanced and the program more deeply thought through and enriched. When a grant recipient and grantor share the same passion, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. To be specific, though, with respect to our contributions to liberal arts colleges, we have always focused on curricular development, interdisciplinary studies, pedagogical issues, and faculty development — the core elements of a college education. We have never supported the facilities competition nor the institutional competition which underlies the facilities arms race. These are not constructive modes of thinking, in my opinion.”

[Question] As a liberal arts funder, how do you view your efforts in the context of larger trends in liberal arts education funding?

“I have to admit here that we are not very conversant with what other funders focus on in higher education. There is no dearth of opportunity to fund educational projects within our areas of interest, and since we are a thinly staffed foundation, we simply do not have the luxury of looking into what others are doing, nor the need to do so.”

[Question] What would you like your colleagues in education funding to understand about your shared aims?

“I really do not know how to answer that question, but I will say this. I think that it is wise to know what people are saying about the future of higher education and to participate in that dialogue. I do not think, though, that educators and funders in the field should be too quick to adopt the assumptions about the future that are bandied about. Educators do know something about successful educational practices that people in other professions do not, and we should look to them for their wisdom. A good deal of the troubles plaguing higher education today, in my view, are due to poor judgment on the part of trustees who then set institutional agendas that are not healthy in the long run. A college is not a business, which we often forget. There is some overlap, but it is not the same. Trustees are generally people who have been successful in their areas of expertise and can often forget that the mission of a college is not to gain a competitive edge, as it might be in the business world, but to provide a deeply significant maturing experience for our young people. In that, our educators are the ones with the greatest insight.”

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