From small acorns do mighty oaks grow, but only if watered with the kind of vision and determination showed by generations of donors and activists of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
The foundation marks 50 years from its beginnings, formed by a board led by the late John Barton Sr.
At that time, across the country, the old “community chests” of the Monopoly board game were seeing the need to better organize local philanthropy and build long-term endowments for the needs of cities and regions. The community foundation in Cleveland had been a leader.
Part of the legacy of the movement was the notion that a community needs a flexible instrument for advancement, a constantly renewing board that could not only preserve donors’ wishes but also have at its hands a fund that could respond to the challenges of the future.
In few places, if any, in the United States has that philosophy been better exemplified than by the BRAF. As it has grown in assets, at $550 million, it has seeded or supported community foundations across southern Louisiana, from the north shore to Acadiana to southwest Louisiana.
Its growth, including a major donation from the late real estate developer Wilbur Marvin, and the leadership of longtime President John Davies put BRAF on the map in national philanthropic circles.
That paid off during the crisis of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. BRAF was one of the focal points of international philanthropy, taking in the displaced Greater New Orleans Foundation and having the resources and staff at hand to respond to a frenzied global initiative to help the Gulf Coast.
Just as our recovery from Katrina is not really done, BRAF’s historic role in that endeavor is not over: As a donor and planner of the Water Institute of the Gulf, BRAF plays a key role in developing the intellectual infrastructure to respond to the challenges of coastal land loss in Louisiana.
Its leadership has been felt in Baton Rouge and across the state. It is difficult to identify a major initiative in which BRAF has not been a leader as well as a funder. From post-Katrina regional planning to development of affordable housing and blight-reduction initiatives, the foundation’s work helps its home city but also larger challenges facing Louisiana.
The donation of the Marvin real estate interests to the foundation have provided the means and expertise for extraordinary redevelopment projects that have changed the face of Baton Rouge. A new home for IBM in downtown is a BRAF-led project that will expand Louisiana’s tech sector significantly, and the renovation of the old Capitol House hotel and the dramatic addition of the Shaw Center for the Arts were keys to remaking the city’s downtown.
The foundation’s resources and leadership have leveraged state and federal funding for Louisiana and with that comes involvement with politics and the clashes of interest in public life. That’s a different and more engaged role that few other community foundations take on, because of the potential — if not inevitability — of criticism.
That the foundation has been so successful in this more rough-and-tumble arena is a tribute to Davies and his team. BRAF’s work is not that of the ivory tower.
We commend the foundation for its work and look forward to its contributions to the growth of Louisiana in the future.