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Feature Story

The mysterious juice of philanthropy


Pappajohn Sculpture Park

What’s in a word? A rose may smell as sweet by any other name, but the gift of money doesn’t smell so much as speak. And it speaks the difference between magnificence and mediocrity, health and sickness, pride and shame, survival or death.

Derived from the Greek words for “love of mankind,” the word peaked in the English language, as far as usage goes, around 1850. That was the decade of the Crimean War when Florence Nightingale’s good works, whether exaggerated by the media or not, popularized the profession of nursing and led to the creation of the first nursing schools. It was also a time of great wealth, led by the expansion of
railroads, manifest destiny, modernization of steel through Bessemer processing, the laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph, and the inventions of the sewing machine, fractionization of petroleum, and the elevator. Philanthropy thrives in times of wealth creation and
then carries over to assuage harder times.

The 1850s were also an era of rising social consciousness, particularly regarding anti-slavery movements, concern for orphans, rehabilitation of prostitutes and promotion of wellness. This led to possibly the greatest philanthropic gesture of modern times. In 1863, Henry Durant, whose fortune derived from colonial exploitation, devoted his wealth to establish The Geneva Society for Public Welfare, which would soon become the International Committee of the Red Cross. Personally devoted to the treatment of wounded soldiers, he would win the first ever Nobel Peace Prize. Philanthropy is often a road to redemption.

Philanthropy purists distinguish its differences from charity (more about treating a problem rather than eradicating its root cause), business initiatives (good but with material gains) and public initiatives (focused on providing services). If such distinctions confuse you, welcome. For the purpose of this story, we are going to lump these things together, because they usually are all lumped together these days to create good works.

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Local individuals, businesses and governments all came together to accomplish things like the building of the skywalk system, the restoration of the Temple for the Performing Arts, the new YMCA, the 1979 version of the Civic Center, the Blank Park Zoo, Orchard Place, the Food Bank of Iowa, Mainframe Studios, and the Animal Rescue League — to name a few. To save the Temple for the Performing Arts, Harry Bookey put together a group of some 80 different sources of support. Even then, he told us the endeavor was dependent on creating a destination restaurant (Centro) and luring Starbucks to the city. It doesn’t take a village to accomplish good works these days, but you better have individual, business and government support in coalition.

The biggest gift?

Francis Marion Drake was a swashbuckling rail baron who bought a college and moved it to Des Moines.

Within this unlimited definition of philanthropy, who is the biggest giver in town? That was an easy question to answer 30 years ago but not so much anymore. Then United Way was the dominant player in all things generous and supportive. William Aramony was CEO of United Way of America for more than 20 years and helped build the organization into the largest charity in the United States. His organization was so big that many people only made one donation a year, assuming their money was spread around to many good causes. Aramony retired in 1992 amid criminal charges of fraud and financial mismanagement, for which he was subsequently convicted and sentenced to prison.
Details of the scandal made things worse. He lived lavishly and treated his mistresses, one as young as 17, to decadences. Though his United Way of America had little to do with the finances of the many local United Way organizations, it didn’t matter. Organizations around America rethought their fundraising strategies with United Way on the sidelines.

United Way is still respected in central Iowa. Their good works are of three kinds — income stability through teaching job skills, health care through a five-point plan, and education by increasing the percentage of kids who graduate from high school on time. Volunteer mentors and book distribution help with the latter. While working on other stories, I have been impressed with their programs for teaching job skills to cons and ex-cons. Far more now than a middleman for donations to other groups, UAI is an agency employed directly with the practice of good works. Among their achievements, the United Way Human Service Campus is ranked No. 1 in the nation. But they are no longer the sine qua non they used to be.

It’s probably Prairie Meadows, which has given $1.8 billion since 1996 and last year gave grants to almost 200 organizations. That’s a big change since the casino and racetrack first lobbied for existence. The track is owned by Polk County, so it isn’t fair to compare its giving to private and business foundations. The Grantsmanship Center, a Los Angeles organization that connects donors with causes they care about, says Iowa’s leading giver is the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, which has a similar mission statement as the Grantsmanship Center. They give just shy of $28 million a year. Their March newsletter focused on disaster relief in response to the coronavirus.

Second on the list was the Roy Carver Charitable Trust, the legacy of the Muscatine businessman who built Bandag into the leading producer of retread tires. Carver’s soft spot for the University of Iowa is well known, but his trust gives more than $15 million annually. With a $14 million annual gift is the West Iowa Foundation. They have associations with racing and gambling in Council Bluffs.

Next up come the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation ($8 million), the Fred Maytag Family Foundation ($6 million) and the Principal Finance Group Foundation ($6 million). The Maytag group lists its priorities as arts and culture, public affairs, social services, and health, including cancer research and aid for the handicapped. Principal’s web page makes note of 100 years of association with United Ways across America. John Ruan Foundation Trust, Wellmark Foundation, Meredith Foundation and EMC Insurance Foundations are local benefactors also mentioned among the state’s top givers.

Built it, and they came

The original Des Moines Public Library was the jewel that crowned Des Moines as majesty of Iowa. Now it’s the World Food Prize center.

How do you rate the top gifts ever? A million dollars in 1900, when Des Moines’ original Civic Center (Library, Court Avenue Bridge, Post Office, Municipal Building, Municipal Court House, War Memorial Armory and Des Moines River walls) was built was worth exponentially more than it was when the new Civic Center was built in the late 1970s. The money that helped build that is worth several times less now.
A new way of looking at value has been coming into vogue since The Grantsmanship Center rose to prominence. Visions are evaluated for their potential contributions to community enhancement and welfare. Business foundations, in general, understand return of investment. With that in mind, I came up with a few examples of prime returns to life as we know it in Des Moines. People helping with this list are anonymous because they don’t want to rate giving, all of which is good.

The original Civic Center (1900-1928) connected the east and west sides of downtown and created a Beaux Arts style architecture that was the envy of the rest of Iowa for decades. It also enforced flood protections for downtown, attracting realtors, insurance companies and professional offices. Think about that original vision. It connected the eastside of government to the westside where the financial power was. That cemented Des Moines as the most powerful hub in the state.

Francis Marion Drake made his fortune guiding wagon trains to California, then buying coal mines and railroads in southern Iowa. After serving in the Civil War as a general, he bought a religious college in Oskaloosa and moved it to the outskirts of Des Moines. He later became Governor. Drake University just kept growing as Des Moines’ college.

Drake Stadium was built in the two years after the Drake football team went undefeated in 1922. The whole thing was financed by a consortium of private businessmen who thought a new state-of-the art stadium could catapult Drake and Des Moines into a major college sports center. It paid immediate dividends with Drake playing a series with Notre Dame. UCLA, Hawaii, Florida and Ole Miss all played Drake. The stadium now is best known as a track-and-field venue with the Drake Relays and Iowa high school championships annually and the NCAA finals coming on a regular basis.

The Court Avenue Bridge connected the eastside government to the westside’s financial institutions.

The skywalk system and the new Civic Center saved downtown. The original intent was that parking garages, linked to buildings by elevated skywalks, would alleviate street parking and traffic congestion, which were driving businesses out west. The first skywalk linked JC Penney’s to a garage. Without the skywalks, John Ruan might not have built his Marriott Hotel nor John Fitzgibbon the Financial Center. The Civic Center, still one of the world’s top-attended theaters in its size group, attracted better restaurants and clubs, creating the Court Avenue District out of what had been a desolation row of flop house, brothels, dive bars and vacant buildings.

Both those projects were ramrodded into existence by relentless, charismatic Mayor Dick Olson and his allies. It’s hard to imagine any other politician assembling the coalition of business, labor, politicians, construction companies and investment support Olson did.

John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park has made the Western Gateway a giant success. Real estate around the park has gone up in value 10 times since the park opened 11 years ago. The 25 sculptures and 4.4 acres of the park give a new life to a former eyesore of old garages, empty buildings and dive bars. The restaurant scene that has grown up near the park since is perhaps the best in Iowa. The gift is the greatest ever to the Des Moines Art Center, which administers the park.

But would the Art Center be viable, let alone brilliant, without its original endowment from the James D. Edmundson trust? That trust has kept admission free at almost all times since 1948 while many other art museums have been costly. More donors made it possible to build two wings, by two illustrious architects, on to the original building.

Henry Brunnier gave up major league baseball for a career in architecture and engineering. He built the Oakland Bay Bridge, Seals Stadium, the Embarcadero sea wall, the Santa Cruz Wharf, the San Francisco Library, the Standard Oil Building and many other Bay-area landmarks. He left his art collection to Iowa State, his alma mater, and enough money to create the Brunnier Museum there.

The World Food Prize today has super corporate sponsorship with Monsanto, the State of Iowa, the Iowa Economic Development Council, Kemin, Dupont Pioneer, John Deere, Land of Lakes, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Buffet Foundation and nearly 100 other charitable organizations on board. Yet, this was the vision of one man – John Ruan. He imagined it, created it and financed it. It now supports six different youth programs and focuses worldwide attention on Des Moines each autumn. It also restored the original library of the first Civic Center project.

The Knapp Center, named for generous real estate developer Bill Knapp, gave the Drake campus a home court for sports events and the city a great venue for lectures, political rallies, graduation ceremonies and concerts. Ohio State graduate Maddie Levitt gave Drake much of its other enhancements over the last 40 years. Her daughter Susie Burt continues that largess.

East Village and the Western Gateway have remade downtown in a kinder, gentler vision. Many visionaries worked to make these things viable, but no one pushed harder and contributed more than Jim Cownie. He was primary in enlisting Princeton visionary Mario Gandelsonas to design the plans. Sometimes visions are real. They were in these two places.

No name is more associated with good works in Des Moines than that of the Blank family. Myron Blank made his fortune in movie theaters and personally invented machinery and cooking oil that made popcorn the No. 1 food of the movies. Coconut oil had an enticing aroma and left fewer hulls. Blank wanted a healthier treat than candy. That concern for children’s health led to the gift of Blank Children’s Hospital to Des Moines in 1944. His wife, Jackie Blank, helped start the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. The family gave $5 million each to build the Iowa Honors Center and the Iowa Science Center and $7 million for the zoo.

The new century

The Blank family name may be the most well-known of philanthropists.

Of all the visions turned real in the current century, nothing stuns those old enough to remember the last century more than the Blank Zoo and the campus of Grand View University. The zoo bears the Blank name for good reason, but the three generations of former Meredith CEO Robert Burnett’s family, giraffe lovers Don and Margo Blumenthal, and Jo Ghrist have also made the zoo one of their charitable priorities. The zoo, under first leader David Allen, worked on a six-year plan to become nationally significant.

Since Kent Henning became the Grand View president on Jan. 1 of 2000, more than two-thirds of the current building space has been constructed, acreage of the campus has more than doubled, students in residence have more than quadrupled, and enrollment has more than tripled. The area around the school has also been revitalized. Henning says he only takes credit for his own donations, but Dan Krumm of Maytag, Chuck Johnson of Pioneer and Kurt Rasmussen have been active supporters.

The mysterious juice

Most good works operate less visibly than the things we have been noting so far. Former Meredith executive Steve Lacy used to call the lifeblood of such good works “the mysterious juice.” Most good works are earmarked for health and education service and human welfare including the arts. Chief contributors include most people already cited here, plus Catholic Charities Diocese Des Moines, which became conspicuous during the infamous Postville raids; the Junior League of Des Moines, which was almost as well-known half a century ago as United Way; Barry Griswell; Susie Burt; the Tom Urban family; BRAVO; Greater Des Moines Partnership; Michelle Book of Food Bank of Iowa; Charlotte and Fred Hubbell; Jim And Ellen Hubbel and so many others.

Since visions have been a thread in this story, what does the future look like for philanthropy? I went to Tracy Levine, a longtime fundraiser for good works, for an answer.

“Water Trails are still happening,” she said. “Ever since Principal kicked them off, they have been significant to Des Moines. We have more than 20 now.

“Credit Unions are being recruited to a bigger role. Others see them as crucial going forward. More than anything, though, the new mantra seems to be ‘Get to know their passions.’ That is the way to cultivate new good works,” she said. ♦


  1. John D Schmidt says:

    Great story. The individuals you noted cared about the community and left a great legacy.

    1. jim Duncan says:

      Thanks John. I think that’s been a key thing about Des Moines’ success – people here seem to sincerely care about the place.

  2. Primrose Magoo says:

    Capitalista dupe.

  3. Kent Carlson says:

    Excellent, positive story!

  4. L.T. Sacco says:

    “With a $14 million annual gift is the West Iowa Foundation. They have associations with racing and gambling in Council Bluffs.”

    Its correct name is “Iowa West Foundation.”

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