Michael Swolsky probably will never again respond to a workplace food drive the way most of us do.
The retired sales executive decided he needed to do more this past holiday season, when the Stutz Business Center, where he has his metal-working studio, became a collection point for Gleaners Food Bank.
As co-manager of a multi-million-dollar charitable trust, Swolsky knew he could do better than a bag of canned goods.
"Right now, especially, people are starving," he said. "Places like Gleaners are really pressed." He quickly decided, "We’re just going to write a check."
Across the country, there are hundreds more foundation managers who, like Swolsky, oversee $1 million or $2 million in assets. With no professional staff, they often hear the pleas of cash-strapped not-for-profits firsthand.
Although they may grant as little as $50,000 in a year, these foundations wield influence over other philanthropists, and one advocate says they could help guide the spending of billions of economic stimulus money.
"Foundations actually have the potential to be advocates," said Tim Walter, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Small Foundations.
Walter noted that Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland recently appointed Cleveland Foundation CEO Ronn Richard to coordinate the spending of $4 billion to $6 billion in federal stimulus money.
While Richard is a professional, Walter thinks other foundation leaders, who often are well-connected, could call attention to not-for-profits that have been effective in job training and economic development.
"Look at where your seasoned philanthropists invest their funds," he said. "They are very careful investors."
Indiana is home to 276 family foundations that have total assets of just under $1 billion. That total does not include the mammoth Lilly Endowment Inc., which had $7.7 billion in assets at the end of 2007.
Some prominent Indianapolis families—DeHaan, Tobias and Glick, for instance—also have high-profile foundations, but most family foundations operate in relative obscurity.
"We’re always hearing about the very large foundations because they generate the media interest, and they’re making the larger grants," said Jack Cole, head of member services for the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance. Yet most family foundations have assets of $1 million or less, he said.
Despite taking a beating in the stock market, family foundations are trying to respond to the needs around them, said Susan Price, vice president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.
"It’s a real tough dilemma," she said. "Everybody is trying to do the maximum with what they’ve got, which is less than they had a few months ago."
According to the center, some foundations are raising annual payouts above the 5 percent of assets that Internal Revenue Service rules require, and even going as high as 17 percent.
Giving big while losing big naturally raises the question of how much money would remain for future generations, but Price said foundations don’t necessarily need to exist forever. The center is urging families to at least discuss whether they want to continue in perpetuity.
"People are not just assuming anymore," he said. "They’re making a decision."
Family foundations can help without doling out cash, too. The center advises convening regional not-for-profits to brainstorm, or offering technical assistance on real estate or financial matters.
Chuck Wills, executive director of the Nashville, Ind.-based Ober Foundation, prefers to back small grants with the punch of grass-roots advocacy. Created by his maternal grandparents, the Ober Foundation supports several Christian charities working in low-income neighborhoods. It grants about $200,000 a year, though that amount will be less in 2009.
"While check-writing is important, we do not look at ourselves exclusively as check writers," Wills said. "We are networkers within the community and advocating for the organizations we care about."
Wills talks up groups like Rebuilding the Wall, which rehabs houses north of downtown Indianapolis. He also helps with formal campaigns. In December, the Ober Foundation offered to match 1,000 donations of $6.50 to Shepherd Community Center near Sherman Drive and East Washington Street. A donation and match combined provide Shepherd the $13 a day it says it needs per child for after-school care and meals.
The foundation’s financial commitment amounted to $6,500, but the campaign netted several hundred valuable first-time donors.
"That’s the kind of advocacy we love," Wills said. "It helps cement relationships for the organization."
Chris Provence, executive director of Rebuilding the Wall, said the Ober Foundation came through with $10,000, just when he needed the money most.
"This year we didn’t even write a proposal, and they just sent us a grant," he said. "It was really great because we’re extremely busy right now. And we’re extremely broke."
Provence thinks Ober made the grant because Wills spent so much time with him. "They respect and understand this is not my job. This is my life."
Relationships are key to getting support from small family funds in the first place.
Grant-writing consultant Stacie Harting Marsh of locally based Writing to Win tells fund raisers to keep networking and trying to set up meetings.
"It’s really hard to get a foot in the door, especially right now," Marsh said. "It may take a couple of funding cycles, but you’ve got to start from scratch somewhere."
Families’ interests are varied, and their giving patterns can appear downright quirky.
The Indianapolis-based Reuben Family Foundation, for example, has made grants to a Yiddish library in the Boston area, a spay-neuter clinic in Latin America, and a new legal aid center in Kenya.
"My brother and sister and I are as different as can be," said Larry Reuben, who took over managing the foundation after his father, Albert G. Reuben, died in 2002.
Reuben is the only one of his siblings who lives in Indiana. He, his elderly mother and one of his father’s former business associates make up the board, but Reuben makes most of the decisions.
The 60-year-old lawyer readily admits he doesn’t do so strategically.
"There was never any application process. I don’t have any forms I send out to people," he said.
Reuben either responds to well-publicized needs, such as to the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina, or to proposals that line up with his parents’ interests of poverty relief, civil liberties, and welfare of the Jewish people.
Last year, he made a gift to the Immigrant Welcome Center, for example, because he knew it would have struck a chord with his 94-year-old mother, Sara, who came to the United States from Minsk, Russia, via Cuba in 1921.
Like his father, who established the foundation around 1959, Reuben said he simply keeps a checkbook in his desk drawer.
"My father’s standing right here, and he’s looking over my shoulder," Reuben said.
The wealth behind Swolsky’s grantmaking was amassed by his late uncle Willard Levin, an Ohio native who had a distinguished career in the military and aerospace, and invested in real estate in California and Florida.
"Some of the people who came through the Depression, they were very frugal, and they made a lot of money," Swolsky said.
Because of the Depression experience, Swolsky said, his uncle found parting with his wealth difficult.
"He didn’t know how. He had the foresight to say we were competent enough to manage it for him," Swolsky said.
He and a cousin in Texas are converting the remainder of their uncle’s charitable trust into the Willard and Anne Levin Foundation, which will support young people and education. They’ll start making grants in 2010 from an asset base of about $2 million.
Swolsky didn’t realize what he was getting into when he became his uncle’s trustee.
"Now I feel tremendous responsibility and obligation," he said.