Provoking the Change
Rasmuson Foundation catalyzes Alaska organizations
By Rindi White
Catholic Social Services

indness is the beginning of philanthropy, but the formula for successful giving sometimes needs a catalyst. That’s when the Rasmuson Foundation, the largest private charitable funder in Alaska, steps in. The Rasmuson Foundation consistently finds the right time and place to donate that maximizes the effectiveness of its funding.

Chris Perez, Rasmuson Foundation’s vice president of programs, says the foundation actively seeks out projects that offer a chance to make positive change for the community they’re in—grants that help kids or improve a community’s health. Even better are those that do both, he says, citing the $400,000 that Rasmuson Foundation gave to Community Connections to help that nonprofit purchase two houses for therapeutic foster care, one on Prince of Wales Island and one in Ketchikan. “Catalytic support grants,” he calls them, referring to their ability to act as a catalyst or, according to Merriam-Webster, “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action.”

“Rasmuson is such a rock—and that kind of support over the years is so meaningful… The longevity of their investment means that organizations can grow in new ways and meet needs in new ways.”

Kirk Rose
CEO, Anchorage Community Land Trust

Many of the Tier 2, or greater than $25,000, grants the Rasmuson Foundation has distributed to Alaska communities, nonprofits, and tribal groups in 2023 could be seen as speeding significant change or action. For example, OPT-In Kiana, a nonprofit for youth in the Northwest village of Kiana, received $176,978 to renovate and furnish a youth center. The group, whose name stands for One Positive Thing, aims to give youth a voice in their community and a positive place to hang out. It’s not hard to see the catalyst-like opportunities there.
Rock of Support
The $1 million that Rasmuson Foundation gave to Anchorage Community Land Trust (ACLT) to help fund a food business incubator facility in Mountain View is sure to be a catalyst for the local restaurant scene. ACLT Director of Communications and Development Emily Cohn credits Rasmuson Foundation with delivering the funding early in the organization’s capital campaign to act as a real catalyst.

The demonstration of faith from Rasmuson Foundation is a huge boost as ACLT launches a capital funding campaign for the roughly $4 million project, Cohn says.

A group of people standing in front of a banner that reads Catholic Social Services while two people in the middle hold a sign that reads 'Thank you for investing in Catholic Social Services, we love our new building'
Catholic Social Services board and leadership staff gather to thank the Rasmuson Foundation for its contribution toward the purchase of the new building at 4600 Debarr Road.

Catholic Social Services

ACLT is a nonprofit that has been working to disrupt concentrated poverty in Anchorage for two decades, focusing on the neighborhoods of Mountain View, Fairview, Spenard, and Muldoon. “Rasmuson has been a major part of our organization from inception,” says ACLT CEO Kirk Rose.

ACLT has a suite of services to support neighborhoods. Closely linked to the food business incubator project, ACLT has for several years run a program called Set Up Shop, aimed at helping entrepreneurs in its four served communities reach their dreams of owning a business. Participants learn about business assistance programs, get all kinds of business training, and gain access to lending resources and real estate services.

“Close to 60 percent of our clients work in food-based businesses,” Rose says. “There was a common need for access to kitchen space.”

Set Up Shop could help clients learn bookkeeping skills or establish a brand, he says, but if it couldn’t help them find a place to, say, make the Mexican birria stew the client dreams of selling, then the program wasn’t fully helping.

“Anchorage isn’t the first community to confront this; Alaska isn’t the first place this is an issue. We found models where there was a program or support to help people access kitchen space. What we came up with was the ability to rent kitchen space 24/7, to rent freezers and coolers and have a place to wash their dishes,” Rose says. “When we create this space that is permitted… we’re going to blow up the food ecosystem.”

That’s a catalytic project for sure. But like Cohn, Rose says Rasmuson Foundation is the catalyst, allowing organizations such as ACLT to meet the needs of the communities it serves not just today, but in the future.

“I think in our sector, and for the work that we do, Rasmuson is such a rock—and that kind of support over the years is so meaningful,” Rose says. “The longevity of their investment means that organizations can grow in new ways and meet needs in new ways. Their support has not been monolithic. That kind of support over time makes a huge difference for Alaskans and for our state.”

Cohn adds, “Rather than just writing a check and mailing it off, they show up and really understand the work so they know how they can be the most impactful—and that’s just as important as the funding itself.”

Six Areas of Focus

The philanthropic focus of the Rasmuson Foundation covers six distinct areas: healthcare and social support; thriving people and communities; education and economic possibility; arts and culture; civic and philanthropic responsibility; and special circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic or the 2018 earthquake. All aim to improve the lives of Alaskans.

“There’s little in an Alaskan’s life we don’t touch in one way or another,” the foundation website states.

While the focus may seem broad—few projects don’t fit into one of those areas—it’s narrow enough to help communities and nonprofits hone their requests.

For example, Rasmuson Foundation has supported Catholic Social Services (CSS) over the years, including $1.8 million for the Third Avenue Resource & Navigation Center that opened in Downtown Anchorage in February. The decision by the Rasmuson Foundation board to support CSS’s purchase and renovation of a building in East Anchorage to provide a one-stop homelessness assistance office helps in a different way.

“[Noel Wien Library] was a warehouse for books… It came to a point where it was becoming more and more inefficient for the staff to serve the public in the way they needed and desired—and deserved.”

Melissa Harter
Former Public Libraries Director, Fairbanks North Star Borough

The building at 4600 Debarr Road is easy to reach by bus and offers case management services, staff offices, and more. Clients can meet with case managers there, or with refugee assistance and immigration services, or any of several other CSS programs. Partnering organizations can meet clients there too; some, such as the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs, share space in the building.

The need was driven in part by the influx of immigrants, says Molly Cornish Cordy, chief communications officer for CSS. In Anchorage, the immigrant population has soared from about 130 new arrivals per year to around 500 per year. The war between Russia and Ukraine has led to an influx of Ukrainian refugees. Many immigrants have limited ability to speak English, so having to go from one office to another around Anchorage to apply for services is challenging on many levels.

Dual Foundations
Under Rasmuson Foundation’s dual umbrella of healthcare and thriving communities is the project by Providence Alaska Foundation to build a crisis stabilization center in Anchorage. Rasmuson Foundation contributed $1 million to the project; it was the final gift needed to allow the project to move forward to construction, says Cynthia Libby, Providence Alaska Foundation president.

It’s a two-phased project. The $11 million raised so far will cover the cost of building a 23-hour service, for teen and adult clients in mental health distress who need immediate but short-term support, and a 24-hour service for clients needing support that requires medically assisted treatment overnight.

“Rather than just writing a check and mailing it off, [Rasmuson Foundation will] show up and really understand the work so they know how they can be the most impactful—and that’s just as important as the funding itself.”

Emily Cohn
Communications and Development Director
Anchorage Community Land Trust

A third element, yet to be funded, will offer urgent care for people in acute mental distress. This clinic, Libby says, will be where police and first responders bring people in need of mental health support but who don’t necessarily need an emergency-room response. The new building will include space for the urgent care facility, she says, but Providence Alaska Foundation will continue to raise the amount needed to build it.

Funding for this effort came from many sources, primarily federal, state, and local grants and Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority funding, Libby says. The final funding from Rasmuson Foundation was a welcome top-off.

“They have always been a leader in stepping up to provide what I would call collaborative support,” Libby says.

A True Community Library
Bridging the two categories of “thriving people and communities” and “education and economic possibility,” the $450,000 that Rasmuson Foundation granted to the Fairbanks Library Foundation will furnish the new Noel Wien Library to create a welcoming space for Fairbanks library users, particularly its teen user group.

The Noel Wien Library was built in 1977 and is the last large library in the state not to be renovated. The project to update the library has been in the works for more than six years, says Melissa Harter, who was director of Fairbanks North Star Borough public libraries until late last year. “This was a warehouse for books,” Harter says. “It came to a point where it was becoming more and more inefficient for the staff to serve the public in the way they needed and desired—and deserved.”

The COVID-19 pandemic changed how libraries serve patrons nearly as much as the onset of the digital age. Michelle Daml, president of the Fairbanks Library Foundation, says patrons were asked to complete a survey outlining what they want and need from the library. The results showed that patrons want access to computers and a business center; teens need a safe place where they can do homework; and people generally want a central location to meet socially or for business.

While the Fairbanks North Star Borough was able to fund construction, the Library Foundation needed help furnishing it.

“We needed tables and chairs. That’s what this funding will go for,” Daml says.

It will have an Alaskana map table, an interactive learning lab, and maker space with movable tables allowing it to be reconfigured for changing needs. There will be a business center and 4,000 square feet of space in the children’s area. The auditorium will be a space for community gatherings and readings. A café and used book store are part of the new building as well, allowing internal fundraising to happen year-round.

“Without them, we would have had an empty library,” Daml says.

The Library Foundation has an ongoing fundraising effort for the remaining roughly $1 million in funding needed.

Construction is expected to wrap up in April; for now, a limited version of the library is operating out of the Joy Community Center.

Final Round, Then a Pause
Last December, the Rasmuson Foundation announced a final round of grant awards for the year, seventeen grants totaling more than $7.5 million and seven grants of up to $50,000 for nonprofit leaders to take sabbaticals of three to six months to pursue endeavors that will allow them to return to their posts recharged.

After those grants were announced, Rasmuson Foundation itself began an organization-wide sabbatical, of a sort. The foundation is currently not accepting new grant applications for its Tier 1 (up to $25,000) and Tier 2 (larger than $25,000) grants, nor is it accepting applications for 2024 individual artist awards. Rasmuson Foundation staff have listed mid-2024 as the likely timeframe when application periods will reopen.

Rasmuson Foundation President and CEO Gretchen Guess explains, “The main reason for the pause is really to allow the staff… to catch up on their work, document the processes, and do some internal alignment work that, because of how fast the team has been going, it hasn’t been able to catch up on it.”