Peter Hutchinson steps down as leader of Bush Foundation

The former state official, superintendent and candidate for governor is moving on.

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Peter Hutchinson

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Peter Hutchinson assembled his staff at the Bush Foundation on Friday morning for an unexpected announcement. He was resigning, effective that afternoon.

This time he wasn't moving on to another high-profile job, but to new opportunities, said Hutchinson, perhaps best known statewide as the gubernatorial candidate for Minnesota's Independence Party, a state finance commissioner and superintendent of Minneapolis public schools.

"If you draw these things out, people want to hold onto what's familiar," said Hutchinson, who assured his staff that his sudden departure is just the way he does business, because it is best for the organization.

Hutchinson's resignation from the St. Paul-based foundation shocked many in the foundation and nonprofit community. Since 2007, he had overseen dramatic and sometimes controversial changes at Minnesota's fourth-largest foundation, with $760 million in assets.

Gone were grants for the arts, the environment, human services and more. The foundation narrowed its focus to fund three program areas exclusively: Native American governance, educational achievement and "community problems-solving through leadership development and citizen engagement."

Some nonprofit leaders questioned the wisdom of such a narrow, "squishy" focus. Supporters called it a bold, innovative move, designed to make the biggest impact on some of the toughest social problems.

'Good at transformation'

Hutchinson said he thrived on reinventing an organization. But with the new direction in place, "the newness" of the work was less frequent, he said.

"I think we all ought to do what we're good at and what we care about," he said. "What I'm really good at is transformation. Fostering organization changes is what I've done for 30 years. While I'm pretty good at execution, it's not my passion."

Hutchinson made the announcement to his full staff at a meeting around 11 a.m., said C. Scott Cooper, communications director at the foundation. Before that, he had informed senior management and some of the foundation's statewide partners.

Hutchinson assured the staff that he was leaving abruptly so that the organization could move forward quickly without him. He recalled that he had done likewise at other high-profile jobs. After working at the former Dayton Hudson Foundation for 14 years, then-Gov. Rudy Perpich offered him a job as state finance commissioner in 1989. Two days later, his desk was empty.

Four years later, a new governor selected Hutchinson's replacement as finance commissioner.

"I was in the cubicle in the back of the room by the next day," he said adding, "I wanted him to succeed.

"And when the Bush Foundation offered me a job Oct. 15 [2007], I was out of the office of Public Strategies Group [his private consulting firm] by Oct. 17."

Harder than it looks

Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, was among those whom Hutchinson called Friday morning to share the news.

"Peter Hutchinson is a great ideas person," said Pratt. "But I think that foundations are harder to manage than they look. Even after five years, some people are still confused about what the foundation is doing."

But the Bush Foundation's move to pour a lot of resources into a few big social problems is part of a growing trend in philanthropy, said Bill King, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

"It comes with a higher level of risk," he said, "But it also comes with a higher level of reward if successful, reward for community and society."

Jan Malcolm, a former state health commissioner who is the chairperson of the Bush Foundation's board of directors, said that Hutchinson "brought exactly what the Bush Foundation sought" when it shifted its giving. The board has created a transition committee to search for a new president.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson insists he's not about to pursue any political candidacies this year. He will continue to work with the foundation in ways that haven't yet been hammered out. For now, the enterprising Hutchinson is simply open for business.

"I've learned that you don't know what your opportunities are until you open the door," Hutchinson said. "I can assure you there is no secret plan, other than to go to the movies with my wife tonight."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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