Bridging gaps

Retiring foundation leader worked to raise philanthropic awareness.

By Ret Boney

Dot Ridings, head of the Council on Foundations and a former  newspaper editor and publisher, will retire later this year to make time for a few things she’s always wanted to do.

That includes advising a high school newspaper, recording for the blind and becoming a Guardian ad Litem to help abused or neglected kids find their way through the court system to a safe home.

“I think it sounds like fun,” she says.  “I really feel like I’m ready to turn that page.”

She also wants to settle into a quieter, more stable community to set up a permanent home for herself and her son, who is mentally disabled, and prepare for when she is no longer there to care for him.

So after 10 years at the helm of the council, a membership organization that provides education, training and networking services to grantmakers across the U.S, she’ll pack her bags and move from Washington to Louisville, Ky.

“I came at just the right time,” she says.  “The foundation field doubled during that decade and our membership increased from 1,400 to 2,100.”

That membership consists mainly of large and medium-sized foundations, and represents about two-thirds of U.S. foundation assets, or about $314 billion, and will grant more than $21 billion this year, the council estimates.

During her tenure, the budget grew by 60 percent to $16 million, staff increased by a third to 100, and the number of trainings and seminars offered more than doubled.

A native of Charleston, W.V., Ridings was a journalist from her earliest days, serving as editor of her junior high and high school newspapers and working for the local afternoon paper, and later as a reporter for the Charlotte Observer after earning an undergraduate degree in journalism.

She then earned a master’s in journalism before moving with her husband to Louisville, where she had two children, freelanced as a writer and edited the Kentucky Business Ledger, a monthly business publication.

She also joined the League of Women Voters, a group she had admired as a reporter, serving as the local board president, a national board member, and ultimately national president for four years.

Dot Ridings

Job: President and CEO, Council on Foundations, Washington, D.C.

Born: 1939, Charleston, W.V.

Family: Two sons, 32 and 36; one grandson, 5.

EducationB.S.J., Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University; master’s, journalism, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Currently reading: “American Dream,” by Jason DeParle

Hobbies: Singing in church choir; serving as church greeter; watching son participate in Special Olympics in basketball and softball; reading

Favorite books: The Sweet Potato Queen Books, by Jill Conner Browne; Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells; Dortmunder novels, by Donald Westlake

Inspiration: “Bert Bandini,” founder of Houston Food Bank

Little-known fact: Still on disciplinary probation at Northwestern University, where, as school paper’s first female editor in 1961, was caught out after curfew “necking” while waiting to proof paper before it went to press.

Inspiration:  Late husband, Don; mother, Katharine Sattes; John Gardner, secretary of health, education and welfare under President Johnson, founder of Common Cause and Independent Sector, “an icon for honesty and integrity.”

After almost two decades in Louisville, the head of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain recruited Ridings to become the second female publisher in its history and, after two years of training at the Charlotte Observer, she took over the Bradenton Herald on the west coast of central Florida.

During her eight-year publishing stint she began flirting with philanthropy, serving on the boards of the Ford and Benton foundations and starting the first community foundation in her home county of Manatee, Fla.

With a foot in both worlds, Ridings noticed there was no bridge between them, that media and opinion leaders didn’t understand foundations and what they do, and foundations seemed afraid to open up about the central role they play in society, giving the appearance of being aloof.

In 1995, the top spot at the Council on Foundations came open and Ridings twice declined the advances of a headhunter, agreeing to read the job description only at the urging of her friend Ira Hirschfield, head of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and a noted expert in philanthropy.

“They punched a button on something that was my strong discomfort for years,” she says.  “Which was the total disconnect between media and the foundation world.  There was an echo of ‘we need to make the foundation world become real to the rest of the world.’  Boy, do I believe that.”

Three meetings later, she told them she wanted the job, officially joined as president and CEO in 1996, and raised $4 million for a three-year cross-country program teaching foundations about openness and accountability and finding ways to help them approach and get to know opinion leaders.

“That’s really what I came here to do,” she says.  “I think we raised a lot of consciousness about that.  That’s also how you stay out of trouble.  Overall, education of grantmakers is clearly much higher on the scale now than it was.”

Today, the council educates about 250 grantmakers and about 100 board members each year, and offers seminars on variety of other topics.

But she realizes now, she says, that the council didn’t focus enough on ethical underpinnings and, in the wake of several high-profile scandals that prompted the current probe by the Senate Finance Committee, has revamped its trainings to stress not only legal mandates but ethical concerns as well.

“I didn’t realize the depth of the problem we had until the newspapers, bless their hearts, made us recognize it,” says Ridings.  “We were just too close.  We knew there were some bad apples, but I did not realize the depth of the problem and how some people were treating it like just another ho-hum.”

Now a member of the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector, a group set up by Independent Sector to advise Finance Committee, she says she wants to make sure senators have enough information to make good decisions.

“There will be some positive things,” she says.  “There will be some that people think are awful.  And I’m not sure all the awful things will be so awful in hindsight.  The best analysis will come some days later.”

There has been progress in the foundation sector already, she says, through changes in governance, and from opinion leaders, who she says are starting to gain a better understanding of foundations.

“A number of foundations have made some very important changes in the way they do business,” she says, and commends lawmakers as well.  “They realize the foundation world is critical to American democracy.  We wanted them to know who we are and know what we do.  This is helping that way.”

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