The Robina Foundation is nearly out of money and ready to shut down — as it planned to do all along.
The Minneapolis foundation started with an unusual mission to give away all of its money to four institutions instead of existing indefinitely like most foundations. Now, one year away from its planned dissolution next December, it’s winding down its work and preparing to give out its final grants to bring its philanthropic total to about $165 million.
Limited-life foundations are rare in Minnesota; another one, ClearWay Minnesota, established with funds from the state’s 1998 tobacco settlement, is set to end by 2022.
“I think this model would work for a lot of people,” said Kathleen Blatz, a former Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice who leads Robina’s board. “It’s very costly to always be in existence.”
Robina may be little-known in Minnesota because the founder, James Binger, a former Honeywell president, determined that money could only go to four entities — Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis and its parent nonprofit Allina Health, the University of Minnesota Law School, Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York — so grants weren’t open for any nonprofit to apply for.
Since the foundation started doling out money in 2007, the U has received the largest amount of the four institutions — totaling nearly $60 million. That money has largely supported scholarships and the creation of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice in 2011 and the James H. Binger Center for New Americans in 2013, which got the law school’s largest philanthropic gift in its more than century-old history.
“It’s a fantastic example of successful giving,” said Deepinder Mayell, executive director of the Center for New Americans, which provides legal support to immigrants. “The immigrant community is one of the most vulnerable portions of the population in the region. It’s a life-changing thing you can do for somebody.”
Binger, who earned degrees at Yale and the U, became president of Honeywell in 1961. He was a longtime member of the Council on Foreign Relations and he and his wife, Virginia McKnight Binger — the daughter of a 3M founder, William McKnight, who started the McKnight Foundation with his wife — had been treated at Abbott Northwestern. Before Binger died in 2004, he specified that the Robina Foundation be limited-life due to concern that it could be diluted over the generations. Plus, he wanted immediate results.
“He just thought you could have a greater impact if you are focused … and I think that’s been true,” said Penny Hunt, executive director of the foundation and former head of the Medtronic Foundation, adding that while not every foundation can have a limited life, “what we’re saying is there are other ways to do it.”
Small staff, large grants
Binger believed the foundation, named after a west metro lake where he had land that was donated to the state, should be able to give out all its money in about 20 years.
With only two part-time staff and four board members who each are paid $30,000 to $48,000 a year, according to current tax forms, the foundation relied on expert consultants to review proposals on topics ranging from forestry to cybersecurity. Foundation leaders say it shows it’s possible to make big grants even with a small staff, as long as there’s a heavily engaged board and paid consultants.
“These are such significant gifts,” Blatz said of the grants that were larger because the giving was narrowed to four recipients. “There’s not that many foundations that do this.”
At Allina, most of the $24.5 million from Robina funded a new care model called LifeCourse that sends care guides to help chronically ill patients. It has reduced costs through fewer emergency room visits and hospital stays, said Penny Wheeler, Allina’s CEO.
“It’s probably one of the largest, if not the largest [grant from a foundation],” she said, adding that Allina is increasingly reliant on philanthropy. “We could not have done this without Robina.”
At the law school, the Center for New Americans would not exist without the grants, Mayell said.
“It’s innovative, it’s one-of-a-kind and it’s transformative,” Mayell said of the center, which received two endowment grants, helping sustain it indefinitely.
The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice didn’t receive endowments but got grants to support the start of four projects on criminal history, probation revocation practices, sentencing guidelines and parole. The institute is funded for the next three years from other sources, said executive director Kelly Lyn Mitchell, and she hopes to find other long-term funding.
“I really give the foundation credit for seeing the potential … for the kind of work we could do,” Mitchell said. “We’ve done the foundational research in all of these areas that allows for policy change.”
Richard Frase, a co-director at the institute, added that they knew all along the foundation’s money would be limited.
“It’s pretty rare for anyone to make grants of this size,” he said. “We’re extremely grateful for the funding we have.”
The foundation also gave money for endowments at the Council on Foreign Relations and Yale.
“The money is being put to long-term good use,” said Susie Brown, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. “That’s an interesting approach — rather than endowing their own institution and making annual grants based on endowment returns, endowing the very institutions that are the priority of the foundation.”
The Robina Foundation wasn’t able to accomplish one of Binger’s goals: to fund a major initiative all four grantees could work on together, which the foundation said was too difficult. But in early 2020, Robina will give out the estimated final $5 million and then start the process of dissolving the organization as Binger once envisioned.
“I just think it’s a very interesting model and I think it’s not understood and really not replicated a lot,” Blatz said. “People who want to do good things for other organizations can just have more impact this way.”