Quirky philanthropy thrives in Baltimore Some foundations dish out cash for strangest reasons

June 26, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

On the 12th floor of the Mercantile Bank Building, one of Baltimore's most obscure foundations practices its quirky brand of philanthropy.

While the door is marked -- Anna Emory Warfield Memorial Fund -- its only employee, a part-time secretary, is seldom in the tiny cubicle. Those who wish to apply may do so by telephone, as long as they meet the fund's rather narrow criteria: "To try and keep elderly women in independent living status in the style to which they were accustomed."

In other words, the Warfield Fund gives money to women who cannot afford to stay in their homes -- even if those addresses are in well-to-do neighborhoods such as Roland Park or Guilford, as some are. The fund, which has assets of $3.7 million and doles out about $160,000 annually in parcels of $975 to $4,225, also helps out men occasionally. "Mostly by the reason they have been man servants of wealthy families, and are retired," explains secretary Thelma K. O'Neal, who happens to be one of the 40-odd grantees.

Unusual? Yes, say those familiar with philanthropy.

Illegal? Not at all.

Practically anyone with money and a mission can set up a tax-exempt fund to carry it out. Although the federal government tightened the laws in 1969, it has little oversight as long as a foundation distributes about 5 percent of its assets each year and files tax returns.

In Maryland alone, more than 500 foundations shelter almost $2 billion and distribute about $124 million annually.

And, while some are accessible organizations with familiar names -- Abell, Blaustein, Goldseker, Knott, Merrick, Meyerhoff, Rosenberg, Straus, Weinberg -- the majority are little known outside the subculture of grant-seekers and grant-makers.

In fact, most authorities on Maryland philanthropy are unfamiliar with Anna Emory Warfield. Even one of the recipients of a Warfield grant is a little mystified.

"A friend of mine got that for me and I haven't the slightest idea how," says 88-year-old Mildred Valentine of Northeast Baltimore, a Warfield grantee for five years. "As far as I know, you have to be a widow. I was so appreciative, I didn't think to ask."

It sounds like a modest version of "The Millionaire," or its philanthropic equivalent, the so-called "genius grants" from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Fate taps you on the shoulder and hands you money.

That's the foundation fantasy. The reality is quite different. Few foundations here give to individuals. Well-known, established nonprofits seem to have an edge over newer ones. Competition can be fierce, the rules of the game murky.

"A lot of the smaller ones are really just charitable checkbooks, set up for tax purposes," says Craig Rocklin, who as director of development at the Maryland Food Committee applies for grants from the state's array of foundations. "They say they accept applications, but they really don't."

Most simple operations

Most foundations here have no staff, trustees who receive little or no compensation, and a less-than-grand office squirreled away in some office building. The money comes from a family fortune or a familiar business. Annual reports are rare.

Proximity doesn't guarantee philanthropy. Some Maryland-based foundations allocate no money within the state. The John W. Kluge Foundation, which recently promised $43 million to Columbia University, is based in Columbia, Md., but only because one of the trustees has an office there. Its money enriches schools and groups in New York and Virginia. The Felburn Foundation in Silver Spring concentrates its giving in North Carolina, while the Fred P. Bergfors Fund of Cabin John targets Quincy, Mass.

Yet even those groups that restrict their donations to Baltimore may seem isolated and remote to most people, who are unlikely to apply for a grant or serve as trustees.

"The average citizen, I think, assumes foundations are not for him," notes Merrimon Cuninggim, former president of the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation and one of the nation's leading authorities on philanthropy. "But if one has set up a foundation as a tax-free entity, then it isn't his money any longer. It's money devoted to the public purpose."

What is public purpose?

Public purpose, however, can be defined broadly or narrowly. Consider some of the special interests to which the state's foundations are dedicated.

* Women. The Warfield Fund, set up by a local financier in his mother's memory, has been making grants and "Christmas gifts" to local women for 50 years. Recipients are chosen for life, but may give up grants if their financial circumstances change.

Meanwhile, the Marjorie Cook Foundation is "limited to the furtherance of women's equality with men under the law and in all relationships." It makes one or two grants each year, usually in the $30,000-to-$50,000 range.

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