Building a foundation from the ground up

Joan Spero
Joan Spero

Julia Vail

DURHAM, N.C. — Joan Spero, who served as president of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for 12 years, carries the distinction of starting a foundation from less than nothing.

When the foundation launched in 1996, it had no mission, no staff and no office, Spero said March 4 in a session held at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University.

What’s more, Spero was charged with building a foundation from the vague and convoluted will of heiress Doris Duke.

The will, which left $1.4 billion in assets, included five estates, a menagerie of exotic animals and a vast collection of Islamic art.

To make matters worse, Duke sparked rumors and a series of prolonged legal battles by leaving her foundation in the hands of her butler, Spero said.

“But there was a silver lining to all this,” Spero said. “I had to defer those decisions that were not essential to focus on what was most important.”

Despite the odds, Spero succeeded in growing the foundation to a grantmaking powerhouse that had given more than $648 million total to nonprofits throughout the U.S. by the end of 2008.

But it wasn’t an easy process, Spero said.

She began by determining what the mission of the foundation would be. Without much help from Duke’s vague will, Spero says, she “turned to her life” to find what had meant most to Duke.

An avid jazz pianist, nature conservationist and supporter of modern dance, Duke was passionate about helping local artists and preserving the natural environment, Spero said.

As a result, she said, the foundation adopted performing arts and nature conservancy as two of its three initial grantmaking areas.

Once a grantmaking strategy was established, Spero set to work creating governance policies, board committees, budgets, grants-managing systems and a legal infrastructure for an operating foundation.

She also spent time assessing what kinds of employees would best serve the mission of the organization, she said.

“We had to define the talents we needed based on our strategies,” she said. “We had to create a culture for the organization.”

Spero said she also knew she wanted to keep staff small, flexible and open to communication.

She hired a chief of staff, financial officer and secretary, and recruited outside consultants and experts to help guide grantmaking.

The foundation established a system of review every five years to ensure grants were serving the organization’s mission.

“Over time, we stopped curating grants and turned to expert panels to advise us which institutions to choose,” she said.

Spero also developed a governing board, whose job was to keep the staff “on its toes,” she said.

The staff also had to deal with Duke’s five sprawling estates in locales ranging from New Jersey to Hawaii.

Spero sold two of the properties, but left three of them under the umbrella of the foundation.

She then began working to convert Duke Farms, a 2,700-acre estate in Hillsborough, N.J., into a reflection of Duke’s vision of a sustainable natural habitat.

The foundation currently is working to support organic farming on the property, create a “green” education center and build trails for hiking and biking, Spero said.

“I would hope in 20 years Duke Farms will be an environmental treasure,” she said.

After more than a decade of false starts and major milestones, Spero followed her own conviction that leaders should step aside to give organizations a fresh perspective.

She retired in December 2008, and Edward Henry, former chief operating officer for the foundation, took over as its president.

But during her time with the foundation, Spero said, she worked hard to dispel “lurid suspicions” about Doris Duke, and shed light on who the artist, heiress and philanthropist really was.

“Now people associate Doris Duke’s name with the work of the foundation,” she said. “Not a lot of people still remember the butler.”

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