When Springfield Art Museum Director Nick Nelson last month announced a historic $5 million gift – the largest contribution in the museum’s history – he focused on the tremendous difference it would make in the community.
“The Sunderland Foundation has expressed their desire that this transformational gift will inspire others to give, and that it will raise the profile of the museum and the importance of the arts and culture to the quality of our life and quality of place in Springfield,” Nelson said.
His words offered rare insight into the donor organization, which typically declines interviews, like the one requested for this story. (Springfield Business Journal left messages requesting an interview but did not hear back from the foundation.)
He said the Sunderland family had both personal and business roots in the community as the founders of Ash Grove Cement, originally the Ash Grove White Lime Association Inc., in 1882.
The family has close ties to the museum, Nelson said.
“Family members attended college in our community and performed plays out on our amphitheater, just out our front doors,” he said.
Overland Park, Kansas-based The Sunderland Foundation was founded in 1945 with the aim of funding brick-and-mortar projects for nonprofits. It’s a natural focus for a family that earned its wealth from concrete, but it is unusual for a donor, according to Brian Fogle, president of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc. Most funding organizations support programming, and grant money for capital projects is rare.
“That is pretty much their niche that they focus on,” Fogle said. “Because the family was in the construction business, construction materials, they really like to do capital projects.”
The foundation focuses on areas where the Sunderland family has had former business operations, according to Fogle.
“We’re fortunate to be one of those areas,” he said.
The Sunderland Foundation’s website notes that it accepts grant applications only from western Missouri, eastern Kansas, northwest Arkansas, the Puget Sound region of Washington and the metro areas of Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, and it spells out it does not fund operating expenses or programming.
The foundation is led by descendants of Lester T. Sunderland, founder of Ash Grove Concrete. It is chaired by Kent Sunderland and has a nine-member board of trustees.
Apparently, the Sunderlands like to build things, and over the years, they have quietly supported bricks-and-mortar projects throughout the Springfield area – $4.3 million worth in 2021, and $6 million the year before, according to the foundation website – and always without a lot of fanfare. Their local donations have totaled nearly $15 million over the past five years.
It’s kind of like concrete. One doesn’t notice it much, but it forms the foundation of almost every structure.
Fogle believes modesty is behind The Sunderland Foundation’s policy of not making public comments.
“They really just try to stay in the background, and that’s certainly their prerogative,” he said.
Another local charity, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Southwest Missouri, received a $500,000 gift from The Sunderland Foundation this year.
Laura Farmer, executive director of CASA, called the gift transformational in that it will help fund a new headquarters, clubhouse and playground.
“The Sunderlands’ gift means that children in foster care in our community will have a safe place where they can be themselves, and where they can visit with family members or siblings that they’re separated from during foster care and have dignity and confidentiality in their services,” she said.
CASA, which trains volunteer advocates to advocate for kids in foster care, fulfils one of the four areas of The Sunderland Foundation’s mission: human services. The other areas it funds are higher education, arts and culture, and health care.
“I know in my conversations with the Sunderlands, they’ve really expressed their commitment to the Springfield community,” Farmer said. “Children in foster care are in their heart, and they’ve helped take our campaign to the next level.”
Janet Dankert, president and CEO of Community Partnership of the Ozarks Inc., has been on the receiving end of Sunderland Foundation generosity twice, with a $100,000 grant to help establish the O’Reilly Center for Hope in 2018 and $250,000 in January, part of the foundation’s 2022 funding effort.
“We were right on track with our capital campaign, and then COVID hit and all fundraising stopped,” she said.
The organization was about $600,000 short of its goal when the $250,000 gift came in. Dankert said the infusion helped to kickstart other giving, and CPO hopes to wrap up its capital campaign within six months. The center serves as a resource hub for the unsheltered community.
The Sunderland Foundation was with the O’Reilly Center for Hope from the start, Dankert said.
“They were one of the first grants we actually got – the first $100,000,” she said. “That really helped us be able to get other funding sources and donors; we could say, ‘We have this investment; can you help us, too?’”
Tip of the iceberg
The foundation’s website lists all its donations for the past five years, not counting 2022, and organizations within SBJ’s readership area – those communities within 50 miles of Springfield – have been big recipients.
The foundation gave $4.3 million to area charities in 2021, $6 million in 2020, $1.8 million in 2019, and $1.3 million each in 2018 and 2017.
These local gifts are the tip of the iceberg for the organization’s giving. The website notes that in 2021, the foundation gave $47 million to higher education recipients, $36 million to human service nonprofits, $23 million to arts and culture projects, and $39 million to hospitals and health care groups. In 2021, The Sunderland Foundation awarded 337 grants totaling $182 million.
In 2020 and 2021, Missouri State University was granted $2.75 million from the foundation toward construction of its Tent Theatre, and Ozarks Technical Community College received $1 million for construction of the Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
Also in 2021, the foundation supported the SeniorAge Area Agency on Aging with $225,000 to expand its senior food distribution center and the Dallas County Health Department with $350,000 toward a new headquarters.
According to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, the foundation’s assets are valued at $1.5 billion.
The $5 million grant for the Springfield Art Museum is the largest single donation the foundation has given in the area, topping the $4.5 million awarded to Drury University in 2020 for construction of the C.H. “Chub” O’Reilly Enterprise Center and Breech School of Business Administration.
Other recent donations from the foundation have benefited CoxHealth and the Mercy Health Foundation, Ozark Greenways Inc., FosterAdopt Connect, Harmony House, Kanakuk Ministries, Least of These, Kids Across America, Ozarks Food Harvest and YMCA Camp Wakonda in the Sunderland family’s hometown of Ash Grove.
Another thing about cement: It connects, via sidewalks and roadways. Nelson said the $5 million from The Sunderland Foundation – a fifth of its $25 million campaign, which will conclude in 2028 – will link the museum to other parts of the city, through its connection to the Fassnight Greenway Trail and through its focus on public spaces where people can gather.
“It’s about connecting,” Nelson said. “It’s about creating a place for all to enjoy.”
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