Some foundations are like the nonprofits they sustain: humble, quietly supportive, and focused impacting people’s lives on a personal, grassroots level.
That would be a good way to describe the Atkinson Foundation, which has been a steadfast Puente grant partner since 2005. Since that time the foundation has bolstered Puente’s operating expenses to the tune of $96,000.
“They’ve been the quiet, steady and undemanding hand. They’ve been there at every turn to provide Puente with the flexibility to both meet basic needs as well as create new projects,” said Kerry Lobel, executive director of Puente.
What does that look like in the context of regional leadership? The Atkinson Foundation is one of the oldest grant-making organizations on the Peninsula, and gives the great majority of its annual support to San Mateo County-based organizations that work in some aspect of social services or education.
The foundation makes grants based on a principle of self-sufficiency – that given the right tools, people can improve the quality of their own lives.
Many grantees are the only organizations that serve a particular need in their part of the county, such as a nature awareness program for foster youth in Half Moon Bay, or rape trauma services in Burlingame.
“We’re nitty-gritty. Out impact comes from consistency over the years and helping small organizations get funded,” says Betty Curtis, the foundation’s longtime administrator.
Founded in 1939 by George H. Atkinson and his wife, Mildred M. Atkinson, with funds from the Guy F. Atkinson Company, the foundation also supports crucial international development programs in Latin America and southern Mexico.
The Atkinson Foundation has been a silent partner to many important coastal nonprofits. The foundation has supported South Coast Children’s Services for years, and helped rehabilitate its thrift shop following a fire. The foundation contributed to flood relief at Pescadero Elementary School, and at one point even helped the Pescadero Community Church replace the carpet in its multipurpose room, according to Curtis.
The Atkinson Foundation got involved with Puente after several board members took one of Rev. Wendy Taylor’s “reality tours” of farmworker housing camps. At the time, Puente’s work was focused on the male workforce who had come to the area without their families.
“That was an eye opener, to see how they live,” recalled Curtis. “You don’t think of what it actually means to arrive here with nothing, absolutely nothing. Not even the language. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to do that and I admire those people immensely,” she added.
The Atkinson Foundation is now in a period of transition from family foundation to an independent foundation, as only two family members remain on the board. However, all the funding priorities and procedures will remain the same. All funding decisions will continue to be made by its 11-member Board of Directors, and its funding priorities will remain the same.
There’s a theory in grantmaking that a foundation should make its mark by only supporting new initiatives. Supporting an organization’s overhead is far less popular.
Contrary to that philosophy, the Atkinson Foundation has proudly supported Puente’s general operating fund for years with annual donations between $5,000 and $20,000.
“We can’t have impact on the largest social issues, but we know these small organizations are going to change individuals’ lives. And we know there’s a cumulative effect,” she said.