Life for the developmentally disabled was very different in 1985, Thomas Golisano said.
That was the year the Paychex Inc. founder and chairman made a $90,000 gift to start the B. Thomas Golisano Foundation. Inspired by his son, Steven, who has a developmental disability, Golisano set out to improve services for this population and provide greater opportunities for them to live and work.
Those opportunities did not exist in 1985 the way they do today, Golisano said.
“There is no question that quality of life for the developmentally disabled has improved greatly by going through a process known as normalization,” he said. “The benefit of that transition is that the general population is more able to relate, converse and interact with them. They’re no longer this far-away thing.”
The Golisano Foundation has played a major role in that transition, supporting programs that help the developmentally disabled live, work and even compete in athletics in ways that were not available three decades ago.
Now Golisano is preparing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the foundation, a period in which it has grown into one of the nation’s largest private foundations devoted exclusively to supporting programs for people with intellectual disabilities.
The foundation has given $20 million total since its founding, making gifts of roughly $1.5 million a year.
Golisano has plans for it to become significantly larger.
Growing the foundation
The foundation has grown steadily thanks to Golisano’s continued giving. It has close to $32 million in total assets, with all but one small contribution coming from Golisano.
As the foundation’s size expanded, so too did its approach. Thomas Clark, the former chief financial officer at Paychex under Golisano and a board member at the foundation since its outset, said it has grown from a largely responsive organization to one actively looking for opportunities to make a difference.
“In the early years, and probably through at least the first half of its existence, we just responded to grant proposals, reviewed them, and said yes or no,” Clark said. “But over the last 10 years, we were much more involved in policy and encouraging agencies to cooperate more with each other.”
Today the foundation is something of a change agent, said Ann Costello, the foundation’s director. Driven by dramatic changes in the field, including a shift in funding to support activities and programs that keep people with developmental disabilities in the community, the foundation has supported more of these programs as well, Costello observed.
“The whole system is changing and evolving, and that means the foundation is doing its work differently by trying to keep pace with the change,” she said. “We have to be open to new information and inputs, and we are working with different kinds of people and sectors.”
Golisano’s personal giving has reflected the changing atmosphere as well. In July, Golisano announced that he was giving $25 million to the Special Olympics—the largest single private gift in the organization’s 47-year history.
The gift is to be used to expand the Special Olympics’ health services globally, including free health exams and some health services at Special Olympics events. The Special Olympics worked closely with the Golisano Foundation to develop a five-year plan to expand the Health Communities model in 100 Special Olympics programs by 2020.
Janet Froetscher, CEO of the Special Olympics, said Golisano and the foundation have been “visionaries and pioneers” in helping people with intellectual disabilities.
As the foundation approaches its 30th anniversary, it has an array of celebrations planned. One of these is an anniversary reception at the George Eastman Museum on Thursday, where the inaugural Move to Include Awards, promoting inclusion for people with developmental disabilities, will be presented.
The foundation also is being honored in an exhibit at the George Eastman Museum titled Positive Exposure. The exhibit features photographs of people in the Rochester area with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which were taken by internationally known photographer Rick Guidotti.
Golisano himself is being honored for his work—with some family members helping out. Golisano’s sister worked with Rochester Institute of Technology to put together archives of his early work, with a display that includes his original briefcase and replication of the desk he used in the earliest days of Paychex.
Golisano said he had no idea it was being put together.
“I’m just sitting around one afternoon and my wife comes in and says, ‘We need to go to RIT now,’” he said. “I said, ‘Why do we need to go to RIT?’ and she said, ‘Just come.’ It was a great surprise.”
Mary Walsh Boatfield knows to have everything in order before meeting with Golisano.
The CEO of Happiness House – Finger Lakes United Cerebral Palsy Inc. and Rochester Rehabilitation, Boatfield has worked closely with the Golisano Foundation and has received more than $1.1 million to support programs that work with developmentally disabled children and their families in their homes.
She learned quickly that Golisano’s reputation as a meticulous businessman extended to his philanthropy as well, Boatfield said.
“Tom and the trustees take a very businesslike approach to awarding grants,” she said. “They ask the hard questions, like who are your partners and whether the project would be self-sustaining or if you would be able to continue if the foundation didn’t support it. But that’s great because it helps our organization to be creative and think outside the box.”
Golisano’s attention to detail and quest for creativity is a major reason why the gifts have been so transformational, Clark said. Golisano pores over funding requests, looking closely at the sustainability of the organization and making personal visits to check in on agencies.
“Tom is not hands off at all,” Clark said. “He participates in every meeting, either by phone or in person, and still goes out to visit groups. The trustees will occasionally visit agencies before a formal presentation is made to the foundation, and it’s not uncommon for Tom to show up.”
That focus has been necessary to keep the Golisano Foundation on track and from slipping outside of its mission, Golisano said.
“Most organizations that work with the developmentally disabled know the Golisano Foundation, and we’ve been rigid in staying in that environment for grants,” he said. “There are many organizations on the border of working with the developmentally disabled but have bigger objectives, and when we look at funding requests we need to make sure they’re not coming under the guise of some other objective.”
Golisano tightens the focus even more when looking to make grants. The foundation is not as interested in simply feeding the budgets of organizations that work with the developmentally disabled, but instead wants to encourage creativity, he said.
“We like funding new projects more than ongoing budgets,” Golisano said. “If you just come and ask for $100,000 a year for the next 10 years, we’ll say, ‘Eh, I don’t know about that.’ Our underlying concept is for people to be creative and bring new things to the lives of people with developmental disabilities and their families.”
Golisano’s careful approach was seen in the recent grant to the Special Olympics. Before the $25 million grant was awarded, Golisano made a $12 million grant in 2012 that helped launch the Health Communities initiative.
Golisano described the initial grant as something of a test.
“That initial grant was a way for us to see what they would be able to do with the money, and we were very pleased with the result,” he said. “The $25 million grant this year allows them to take it from a test program to a major expansion.”
This careful approach has been seen in Golisano’s personal philanthropy as well, Costello said, with gifts to local colleges including ones to RIT to create the industry leading Golisano Institute for Sustainability and to fund the creation of the Golisano Children’s Hospital.
Golisano’s personal giving often intertwines with the foundation’s work, she said.
“Many aspects of the foundation’s work and his personal philanthropy are starting to overlap,” said Costello, who noted that Golisano’s personal giving has eclipsed the $250 million mark. “His work with children’s hospitals provides critical care to babies and children with significant health needs, and now that work is expanding outside of New York.”
Golisano’s giving has an effect on his company as well. Martin Mucci, Paychex’s president and CEO, said Golisano’s philanthropy has set an example that permeates the firm’s culture.
Golisano in turn is quick to give Paychex and its employees credit with allowing his philanthropy, Mucci added.
“Tom has set a great example for philanthropy with the whole Paychex team, from leadership right down to the front line,” Mucci said. “They are all aware of his giving, and as Tom would always say, he’s able to do this because of the success of Paychex and the 13,000 employees and everything they’ve done. They take a lot of pride in hearing that.”
Golisano has made the foundation his life’s work, but said he has been thinking much about what will happen after his life is over.
The Paychex founder, whose personal net worth was estimated by Forbes at $2.3 billion, said the foundation will receive a major boost after his death.
“Well since I applied for immortality and I didn’t get it, I think the foundation is going to be the beneficiary of a significant amount of my estate,” he said.
Though Golisano did not put a figure to what that gift might be, he said it will be enough to bring a major expansion. Exactly what that will look like still is being determined.
“One of the realities of life is we have two directions we can go, we can open up our visions and serve a much broader group of people or open up geographically and serve the same group of people, in the same situations,” Golisano said. “That’s going to be a big discussion.”
The foundation has been preparing for that change, Clark said.
“We have done some strategic planning, with discussions on where the agency will be headed and what it will need in terms of additional staff and what the geographic area might be,” he said. “We’ve already started some activities in Florida and spread a bit further in New York, but you can talk about it and strategize but can’t really put anything into place until the funds are available.”
Golisano has been preparing personally for the transition.
“We’ve just expanded the board of trustees, and I say this with a smile, but we brought in some new young blood,” he said. “One of those new board members is my nephew Chuck (Graham), and I picked him to be sort of the family representative. He has a good feeling for how I think.”
Golisano has been preparing for the foundation’s future in other ways. Costello, who manages the day-to-day operations, has taken on a more upfront role as well. It is Costello who looks at the three to five funding requests they receive each day and has become the public face of the foundation at many public events, Golisano said.
“I’ll bet that between Ann and me we get three invitations a week to attend events, and I’ve been pushing them away and Ann has been taking more on,” Golisano said.
Whatever the exact scope and geographical focus of the foundation in the future, Clark said one thing is clear—the size will increase dramatically.
“If we understand Tom’s intentions, this will become a significant national and international foundation,” he said.
Golisano’s vision and the track he has set the foundation on will ensure that the transition to a larger agency is a success, Costello said. Golisano has been ahead of his time with his approach to giving, something that has set the foundation up nicely for the future.
“Philanthropy itself is changing, and Tom is probably the epitome of the new philanthropist,” Costello said. “Years ago the goal was to give money away, to find a charity worth your support, give them a grant and your job was done. Now it’s more about solving problems, and giving away money is the last step, not the first one.”
While the exact scope may still be under determination, Costello is clear about some things. The foundation also will increase its work in promoting inclusion, an area that has commanded greater attention nationwide.
“We are moving beyond just fitting people with disabilities in and tolerating them or adapting, if you will,’’ she said. “We want to move to inclusion, acceptance and creating opportunities, the kind of things that you and I take for granted.
“Some have said the disability rights movement is the last of the civil rights, and I don’t know if there is a ‘last’ but it’s time has certainly come and the voices of self-advocates are getting stronger. The Golisano Foundation is playing its part in that by aligning agencies and initiatives that support and are committed to inclusion.”
Golisano knows the larger size will bring new challenges to the board, which will require the organization to grow as well. He points to the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, which was infused with more than $1.2 billion after the death of the Buffalo Bills owner. Federal government spending guidelines dictate that the foundation must spend 5 percent annually, which Golisano said is not a simple task for an agency so large.
“They have to give away more than $50 million a year,” he said. “Do you think that’s easy? We’re going to need to have a fairly active board and fairly active administrator.”
But Golisano is confident about the path the foundation is on and the leadership from both Costello and the board.
“After all, I didn’t get immortality,” Golisano said.
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