Commentary

‘Goodbye, not goodbye’

Leader of the Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska’s largest philanthropy, reflects on end of tenure

November 11, 2022 1:20 pm
Diane Kaplan goes for a drive at Silver Salmon Camp. (Photo by Sven Haakanson)

Diane Kaplan goes for a drive at Silver Salmon Camp. (Photo by Sven Haakanson)

Exciting new beginnings — they always come with sad farewells.

It was nearly 30 years ago that Ed Rasmuson recruited me to be his partner in the creation of what is now the largest philanthropy in Alaska.

“It’s yours if you want it,” is how he put his offer that I become the only employee of his small family foundation — a foundation that now is approaching a billion-dollar responsibility to use his father’s fortune — and much of his own — to repay his beloved Alaska for the opportunities it offered his family.

I believe that we — and our dedicated, talented staff — have over the years realized much of the dream, almost always in collaboration with co-funders, with community leaders and energized citizens, even with the help of a politician or two. Many of our groundbreaking initiatives are now part of Alaska life:

Pick.Click.Give. channeled more than $3 million of this year’s PFD to charity. The Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program at the University of Alaska is turning talented village youth into engineers. The Dental Health Aide Therapist program provides basic dental care in places that have never seen a dentist — it has been lauded and copied by rural communities across the country.

The foundation’s Individual Artist Awards have revolutionized the creative community. Over the years, the program has made a total of 626 grants totaling nearly $6 million for Alaska artists and culture bearers. This program was particularly close to Ed’s heart.

Another of Ed’s and his father Elmer’s favorite initiatives was the annual Funders’ Tour. For 25 years, decision-makers from Outside philanthropies have been invited to spend a week meeting, greeting and learning about Alaska with the goal of encouraging partnering and investment here. To date, participants on the tour have contributed more than $425 million for Alaska programs.

I could go on — over the years the foundation has funded more than 100 clinics in cities, towns and villages across this vast state; dozens of libraries, women’s shelters and playgrounds; thousands of places for people to call home; alcoholism recovery programs and family support initiatives; the Providence Cancer Center.

Now, eager for one more round of new challenges, intrigued by several exciting opportunities, I am confident that what Ed and I created will not only endure, but blossom anew under the next generation of both staff and leadership.

That’s history. We lost Ed to cancer earlier this year — this plain-talking, sometimes grumpy, Alaska-loving mentor and friend is sorely missed. But in some ways, the death of my partner freed me to consider that perhaps now is the right time to hand off our creation to the next generation.

Now, eager for one more round of new challenges, intrigued by several exciting opportunities, I am confident that what Ed and I created will not only endure, but blossom anew under the next generation of both staff and leadership.

In July of 2021, with the end of Ed’s life near, the Rasmuson family moved the next generation to the front of the line. I’ve known our new board chair, Adam Gibbons, for years. He is the right leader for this time of transition — smart and caring with a big heart for people in tough situations, for rural Alaska, and for artists.  He and his colleagues will carry his uncle’s passion for doing good forward with bold and innovative strategies.

He will have help. Every day someone tells me, “Your staff is amazing.” It’s absolutely true. Where once I was one, now there are 30. They come from diverse backgrounds and places but share a deep love for Alaska and for making it a better place for every Alaskan. I have been honored to lead these hard-working, intelligent, nimble, collaborative people.

To my partners in philanthropy, government and the nonprofit and tribal organizations, you are the lifeblood of this work and you’ve provided the energy and inspiration that flows through my veins. I have been blessed to work with the best of the best, people who are improving lives every day in every community of Alaska. You are the heroes of this story.

So here it is, my sad farewell — not so sad after all. Dec. 31 is not far away. Now on to new beginnings.

 

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Diane Kaplan
Diane Kaplan

Diane Kaplan is the president and CEO of the Rasmuson Foundation. She announced in March that she is stepping down at the end of the year. She previously led the Alaska Public Radio Network. In July, President Joe Biden nominated her to serve as a member of the board of directors for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, on the recommendation of U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.

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